Until a few years ago, the chance of finishing secondary school in rural parts of Rwanda was a dream few girls could fulfill. According to the World Bank the gross total enrollment of girls in secondary school in Rwanda was only 37% in 2011. The secondary school transition rate was low, with only 71% of girls completing primary school in 2009, of which only 72% of those graduates then going on to secondary school. Those lucky enough to start secondary education faced further challenges - lack of secondary schools in the poor rural villages, high student to teacher ratios, lack of funds for school fees, a high burden of domestic chores at home, and lack of appropriate sanitation facilities at schools meant that many girls were forced to drop out.
In response, the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), working closely with the Government of Rwanda and Connect To Learn (CTL), a global public-private partnership between the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Ericsson and Millennium Promise (an NGO), has improved access and quality of education for girls in Mayange, Bugusera district, one of the poorest areas of the country. In February 2012, Connect To Learn awarded 40 three-year secondary school scholarships to disadvantaged yet deserving girls from the village with funding from the Sanchez-Palm Girls Scholarship Fund, and has since enrolled four additional girls on CTL Scholarships through funding from OmniPeace and several individual donors. In January 2013 Ericsson and MTN stepped in and provided Internet connectivity and laptops for the two schools where these scholarship beneficiaries are enrolled. These investments impact approximately 1,300 Mayange students, 34 teachers and their families.
On February 7th, the schools were visited by 18 representatives from Silicon Valley-based companies and the US Department of State, the Country Manager of Ericsson Rwanda, Mr Paul Raine, and Mr. Murangila Franklin, representing Rwanda’s Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion. The 18 delegates were part of TechWomen, a mentorship and exchange program that supports the next generation of women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from Africa and the Middle East.
The visitors spent the day with students and witnessed some of the huge strides being made in access to educational resources thanks to the Connect To Learn program, including the ICT lab, computer lessons, and the library, and encouraged the students to work hard to achieve their dreams.
The new “Girls Houses” and sanitary pad programs at both schools made a particular impression.
These simple, low cost programs address one of the key barriers to girls’ education. Over 20 percent of schoolgirls in Rwanda miss school, up to 50 days per year according to World Bank figures, due to the fact that sanitary pads are too expensive for them to purchase regularly. Many girls feel too embarrassed to come to school without proper protection. Once a student misses too many days of class it is difficult for them to catch up, and dropping out permanently from school is often the result. In response, the Earth Institute designed the “Be-Girl Pad”, a reusable hybrid sanitary napkin which can be made cheaply with readily available materials. Under the pilot scheme, the first distribution of pads was free. The plan is to roll out the scheme to five other secondary schools in Mayange, depending on the feedback received from participating girls and their families.
The “Girls Houses”, completed last year, complement this scheme by providing the girls with a clean space where they can look after their sanitation needs, and discuss in private the issues surrounding gender and sexual health, as well as participate in general extra-curricular learning programs.
“We have witnessed a change in their academic performance since they spend more time in school and also it has reduced absenteeism greatly since the girls do not have excuses to stay out of school,” said John Mugabo, MVP’s Education Coordinator.
In addition to visiting the schools, the TechWomen delegates also bore witness to the Millennium Villages innovative use of ICT for primary health care (Open MRS and ChildCount+ software in Mayange’s health center), and visited several successful business initiatives, including the basket weaving cooperative and cassava plant. The trip was part of a broader visit by TechWomen to learn about Rwandan culture and history, the professional landscape for women in STEM, and to see first-hand the impressive efforts of NGOs, schools, and the local government to provide girls and women in Rwanda access to education and careers in STEM fields.