On October 11, Rwanda joined the rest of the world to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, under the theme Girls’ Progress = Goals Progress: What Counts for Girls. The day aims at providing a platform to reflect on how far girls have come and the challenges that are still prevailing.
Girls were in the past treated as subordinates. The culture of male preference was dominant across all spheres of life; however, this is slowly but steadily taking a turn.
Today, more girls access education, they have rights to inheritance of property, and vices such as child marriages, among others are being curbed. But challenges still abound. Indeed it is not yet uhuru for girls across the globe and Rwanda in particular.
Olive Uwamariya, a gender activist, says girls still face issues such as poverty and limited access to basic needs which makes them more vulnerable to violence, exploitation that involves unpaid work, and forced marriages, among others.
She adds that girls also face a lot of challenges within and out of school, like teenage pregnancy which force them to drop out of school.
Girls are also financially excluded despite the many progressive policies which focus on financial inclusion, Uwamariya adds.
The activist points out the issues related to menstruation as another thorn that still affects girls as well.
“The stigma that’s still associated with menstruation as dirty and unclean makes girls shy away from accessing existing services or even openly talking about their experiences for fear of being laughed at,” she says.
Uwamariya also points out a fact that girls often lack information on the changes they are undergoing which is disempowering.
She therefore advises that more policies and laws should be put in place to address these issues.
“But they need to be enforced, including increasing budget allocation to support policy implementation. Also, increase awareness of the services in place as well as education in schools on sexual and reproductive health,” Uwamariya suggests.
For Faith Mbabazi, a communications expert, the solution lies in embracing technology but girls seem to be lagging behind in this aspect as well.
Mbabazi, a Communications Manager at Digital Opportunity Trust Rwanda, an organisation that transforms young people into leaders of change says that location of public internet services, especially in rural areas, low access to gadgets and lack of skills on the use of these gadgets, plus the low self esteem, prevents girls from studying ICT in school.
This is exactly why the principle of gender equality is embedded in the organisation’s programme, according to Mbabazi, where for instance the interns recruited are a minimum of 50 per cent young women.
She says that gender is integrated into all aspects of the learning programmes.
Through its ReachUp programme, the organisation trains and equips young women with skills on how to use technology to achieve educational, social and economic opportunities.
“Community-based participants’ recruitment strives for gender balance with specific efforts to reach young women. The organisation’s programming has made significant efforts to create opportunities for female youth to gain new skills through increased access to digital technology, training and active engagement with their communities,” she says.
Mbabazi suggests that continued awareness and empowerment of young girls and women to be able to use technology for their socio-economic development, advocate for easy access to digital technology and know-how skills for young girls and women, will help boost them in this field.
It is work in progress
However, government says a lot of ground has been covered in empowering girls in Rwanda and more is in the pipeline.
Pamela Mudakikwa, the communications officer at the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion said that activities to mark the International Day of the Girl Child to be undertaken on the October 15 are in line with empowering girls.
The activities will focus on the issue of teenage pregnancies, where a mapping exercise will be done to identify the most vulnerable teenage mothers in all districts to support them.
She explained that the support is expected to be oriented in helping them go back to school (for those who dropped out), preferably in vocational institutes, to enable them gain skills for job creation as well as support them in raising their children.
Girls speak out
17-year-old Cheyenne Muvunyi says that the mindset of girls is also an issue.
“For example if you were to ask a random girl to mention a general or sergeant in the Rwandan army, she will automatically think of a man when there are highly ranked female soldiers, why? It’s the mindset. The way of thinking must change because what seems obvious may not be so obvious,” she says.
Muvunyi also says that traditions and culture work against girls’ prosperity because sometimes women are mostly viewed as just child bearers.
Back in time, only boys would go through the process of becoming Intore (well bred and trained in civic education), she says. However, Muvunyi says, the steady change in culture is commendable, citing that society is slowly embracing women empowerment.
“After witnessing the positive effects of girls and women empowerment, right now anyone can become Intore and I am proud to say that I am one myself,” she says.
She adds that though girls in Rwanda still face challenges in society, they are less compared to other countries.
“I think that the challenges Rwandan girls face are less compared to other countries like Kenya and Uganda,” she says.
20-year-old Alice Uwizeyimana calls upon fellow girls to wake up and take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them.
“Girls should develop self confidence and embrace opportunities. Various organisations are looking out for girls; presenting them with opportunities that are a sure way to success but this can only happen if girls open their minds,” Uwizeyimana says.
Vestine Ujeneza shares Muvunyi’s point of view saying that regardless of the government’s efforts, girls still face challenges.
“Girls, especially those in rural areas, still struggle with issues like access to sanitary pads, sexual abuse, and forced marriages, among others. This still needs to be addressed,” she says.
Ujeneza is of the view that communities too need to be a part of this fight and that sensitisation can be of great help.
HOW CAN YOUNG GIRLS DEAL WITH EVERYDAY CHALLENGES?
Sheilla Batamuriza, student
I think a platform where girls can speak freely, interact with knowledgeable people, and also, share ideas, is the ultimate way to help them address their everyday challenges. It’s hard being a girl; some find it hard to approach people for advice, other are timid and lack confidence. An interactive platform would inspire them to share their experiences and learn from other women who have managed to move forward. This is a great support system and a way to boost their self-esteem.
Carol Mugabo, administrator
Schools should play the biggest role in helping young girls tackle their everyday challenges. It’s at school that the majority of girls hit puberty, test self-reliance, and try to cope with the world around them. I think schools have the power to groom knowledgeable, motivated, and confident individuals. This can be done through counselling, mentorship, and other empowerment programmes that help girls realise their potential.
Fiona Ntaringwa, model
There will never be a better solution to this than tutoring. When it comes to helping young girls tackle daily challenges, this is the way forward. Making education accessible to all eventually equips young girls with necessary knowledge, skills, and experience on how to deal with the challenges around them. Education helps young people value their lives, use their time effectively, maximise their abilities, and work hard towards achieving their goals. Young girls should respect themselves, set standards, and make their own decisions. It’s important to have principles.
Claudine Uwimana, vendor
The Government of Rwanda has done a lot towards empowering young girls and addressing some of the major challenges. In my opinion, young girls need to use their skills and abilities to take on the opportunities around them, and most importantly, acknowledge the fight towards empowerment. Young girls should value networking, seek guidance from experts, and speak out so that their voices can be heard. Everyone’s effort is required.