Shadia Kagina, an S4 student at White Dove Girls’ School (WDGS), wants to become a software engineer. In an increasingly technological world, it won’t be hard for her to find space in the labour market. However, it is no secret that the career she aspires to embrace is male-dominated.
In most developing countries, Rwanda not being an exception, and in spite of all the efforts towards equal access to education, there is still a largely held misconception that there are certain careers which are meant for boys only. The information and communication technology (ict) industry, for instance, has for a long time been male-dominated because of the notion that ICT skills are a “domain for boys.”
Therefore, in establishing White Dove Girls’ School (WDGS), the only all-girls computer science school in the country, the objective was to close the gender gap in the ICT industry.
A holistic approach towards education
For a computer science school, one would expect that students spend the day alternating between chalkboards and computer screens. However, Patrice Dorrall, the head of the school, explains that the administration is not only interested in academic performance.
“We want to make Rwandan girls academically strong. We want to shape them into good leaders who can make a difference in their country and the East African region,” she says.
Dorrall gives an example of the She Leads leadership initiative through which students learn practical business skills, culture, etiquette and common courtesy. It is only then that I understand something that had perplexed, but impressed me a few minutes earlier; as soon as I entered the school gate, a group of girls neatly clad in white T-shirts and sky blue jeans walked towards me. I tried to give them way thinking they were on their way out but each one of them shook my hand firmly, smiled at me and said, “Thank you for coming,” before making their way back to their respective classes. The girls are part of the school’s Welcome Committee – one of the She Leads committees.
Before initiatives such as She Leads were started, Dorrall explains, most of the girls lacked confidence and people skills. However, it is now clear that the girls are no longer timid; they sit up and speak up during conversations.
Apart from the different committees, WDGS staff also commits time towards changing the mindset of the students.
Robert Bugabo, a teacher at the school, believes in helping girls realise their full potential. Even though he teaches computer science modules, he asserts that he incorporates character-building into his lessons because, in his view, when you train a girl, you train a nation.
Apart from She Leads and pep talks, WDGS takes the students on tour to give them an informed view about different matters such as peace building, and government operations.
Asia Giramata, an S6 student, for instance, is well on her way to becoming a champion for women empowerment and unity in Rwanda. From the way her eyes light up when she speaks, it is clear that she won’t let anything stand in her way. She attributes this new-found confidence to WDGS.
“They have taught us to be problem-solvers, to know the power of our dreams, to be confident, and be good leaders at the community, national and global level,” she says.
Making higher education attainable for needy girls
Three years ago, if one had asked Giramata what her career goal was, the question would have been met with a blank stare, or at the most, an unconvincing response. It was not because she did not have the intellectual capacity to achieve any dream, but that her family is financially constrained.
She is not the only one; all the 35 girls at WDGS are studying under scholarships since they come from poor and/or single parent households. Some of them had spent up to six years out of school before they were enrolled in WDGS.
Divine Ineza is now in her final year of secondary school. She hopes to one day sell software. This is a newfound dream considering that she lost her father at a young age and that her mother was struggling to pay school fees.
Kagina, like Ineza, lost her father in 2007 and her family has been struggling to stay financially afloat. She now looks forward to getting a good job. She is confident that the computer and leadership skills she has acquired at WDGS will get her there.
Working through the challenges
Dorrall points out that the biggest challenge is budget constraints. At the moment, WDGS is based in Kacyiru in rented premises with limited space. Consequently, it is a day school and administrators worry about dangers such as early pregnancy.
However, she is glad that they do not have to put up with rampant absenteeism which was a challenge at the start because “some parents and guardians did not attach a lot of importance to girl-child education.”
Additionally, the school administration works towards hiring native female teachers so as to provide the students good examples.
“However, most of the time when we advertise for teaching positions, a lot of the applicants are males,” Dorrall says.
A national school with international intentions
WDGS was founded in 2013 by Jake and Beth Chaya, two American educationists and business professionals with the aim of “changing the future of Rwandans with education and empowerment.”
However, Dorrall asserts that WDGS is not an international school and that, in fact, the school operates under the Workforce Development Authority (WDA) and as such, follows the national curriculum.
“We are a national school in the sense that our school fees is affordable,” she adds. This is an important aspect of the school foundation because of the awareness that most of the good schools in Rwanda are inaccessible to the average citizen.
However, Dorrall asserts that students are encouraged to seek opportunities beyond the national level while also continuing to serve within their country. The first S6 class will complete secondary level this year and already, they are applying to join the University of the People, an accredited online university that works in collaboration with prestigious institutions such as Havard and Yale in the USA.
As they do this, they will continue to gain working experience as teaching assistants or administrators in IT maintenance and other fields.
WDGS plans to launch a programme known as “My Sister’s Keeper” under which students engage in mentoring girls in neighbouring primary schools by helping them with homework and through peer counselling. The internship will not be limited to S6 students, but rather will cover all levels.
Plans are also underway to involve the students in different co-curricular such as playing volleyball, chess and cycling.
Indeed, going by Dorrall’s words; “Success largely depends on who is standing in front of you,” one can clearly say the girls at WDGS are headed to a bright future.