On this International Day of the Girl, I would like to inspire the future generation of political leaders through Education.
My political career was inspired by my late aunt Félicula Nyiramutarambirwa, who was a Member of Parliament from 1982 until 1989 (one of 4 women parliamentarians out of 61 men).
She fought for the education of children without discrimination, strived for the promotion and the emancipation of young girls and women, the most vulnerable people including disabled children and their parents.
After my primary school, she made me enrol in a college of seminarians (school for boys who were preparing to become priests) to pursue an education in science, because majority of girls during this period, were oriented by the then government to pursue careers in social studies, technical and health training.
Considering our culture, it was abominable for a girl to attend seminary, and my father was greatly opposed to this, saying that he doesn't want his daughter to study alone with boys, and besides, I couldn't be a priest.
He eventually had his way and that is how I ended up taking the technical training option.
My dear aunt died when she had just sent my parents the application forms for my university scholarship in Belgium, which was unsuccessful (bad memory of my bad luck 1989).
Nevertheless, I pursued my university studies at Pana-African Institute for Development Central Africa in Cameroon where I obtained a Master's degree in Development Planning.
When I was young, I observed how my dear aunt, as a Member of Parliament mobilised women from our area into associations and cooperatives: women farmers, women teachers and nurses (my mother was also a member). She had also participated in the first Decade of Women (1975-1985) which was held in Nairobi in 1985.
At the time, just like other countries around the world, Rwanda was under international pressure from women's movements which agitated for a woman to have a place she deserved in the cultural, social, political and economic affairs of her country. During this period, we saw a proliferation of women's associations in Rwanda in the 1980s and 1990s.
As for us little girls, my brave aunt encouraged us to participate in youth movements, that I can testify that they were my solid foundation for leadership training because I have been at the head of the various associations and movements of young girls and women on several occasions.
It was through this experience that I was elected as coordinator of the International Movement of Young Christian Workers [Mouvement Internationale de la Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne Féminine (JOCF)] Rwanda branch and I was a founding member of some associations and women's organisations in my country.
In 1998, with a group of young girls and boys under the patronage of the Ministry of Youth, we founded the National Youth Council in which I was elected National Vice-President. Since 2000, in the legislature, this council elects two young people (female and male) who represent Rwandan youth in Parliament.
In 1995, I represented the Young Women of Rwanda in the Rwandan delegation of 40 women who attended the International Women’s Conference in Beijing, China.
This group was made up of women in politics, civil society and the private sector. The conference made twelve recommendations, one of which emphasizes the education of the Little Girl.
Upon returning from Beijing, Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe (Collective of women's organizations in Rwanda, of which I was a founding member in 1992 and a member of its board of directors) set up thematic groups which should implement and follow-up of these recommendations cited above. I was part of the thematic group responsible for the education and promotion of the girl child.
This organisation has played a major advocacy role in Parliament during the formulation of human rights laws: Fighting for gender-based violence, discrimination, child protection, etc.
This is how the marriage age for the girl in Rwanda, which was 18 and 21 for the boy, has risen to 21 for everyone following a proposal submitted by the collective Pro-Femmes.
The voice of women has made the law governing persons and the family today, stipulates that the marriage age for girls and boys is 21. This allowed young girls to continue their studies at university before getting married.
This forum of women's organizations was a breeding ground for women politicians and their increase in number in decision-making bodies aroused the result of an awakening of the consciousness of patriarchy which questioned itself and ended up by understanding that the participation of women in decision-making was more than a necessity for sustainable national development and a source of positive change in societal life.
I am witness to this because, with the experience gained from women's organizations, it encouraged me to apply for the post of mayor of a district in 2004 and parliament in 2013 and 2018 (2nd term).
In July 2008, the gender policy in education was adopted by the government, with an aim to improve girl’s education, lower barriers for girls going to school, and raise girls' awareness of the importance of education.
The government has put in place mechanisms to educate parents to eradicate all barriers that are likely to limit the girl's chances of self-promotion.
Rwandan leaders are aware that equal participation of men and women is necessary for Rwanda to achieve its project of developing an ambitious economy based on wisdom and knowledge.
Despite the efforts made, there is still a long journey ahead. Access to school and school completion rates remain challenges, especially for girls.
In Rwanda, we note the cases of children who became heads of households due to the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994, many of these children were girls and to drop out of school to take care of their siblings; others are ignorance of laws and rights, ignorance and shame of talking about reproductive life in families, to young people.
Poverty: Even though Rwanda is a developing country, there are still some cases of families struggling to find food, which deprives girls of their right to go to school and boys are privileged since they say- the girls will have a dowry and will be able to marry.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the global conomy around the world in general, and especially that of families. There is not enough technology to get children to study online.
This has had a very negative impact especially on young girls, some of whom have been forced into early marriages and unwanted pregnancies and have little chance to go back to school when physical classes resume.
All of these challenges combine to prevent Rwandan girls from completing their education.
In order to motivate girls to continue their studies, First Lady Jeannette Kagame created Imbuto Foundation with the aim of contributing to the health, education and economic independence of girls in Rwanda.
This initiative also intervenes to strengthen the capacity of households of poor and helpless children. Each year, the First Lady rewards young girls for the excellence of their academic performance in primary and secondary schools.
The winners each receive a schoolbag with supplies, a small cash prize, a laptop computer, and acquire computer training courses.
“Girls must do all they can to make progress and to advance their families and their country. These awards are meant to boost the performance of girls across the country," Ms Kagame Jeannette said on March 24, 2009.
Henriette Mutangampundu, 18 years old, received a laptop computer for her excellent academic performance at the Imbuto Foundation awards ceremony in Kigali, in 2009, Rwanda. “Girls face additional challenges in school and sometimes they lack self-confidence. These awards encourage us to always aim higher,” she said.
Beyond these awards, many other initiatives are underway to improve the teaching conditions for students in Rwandan schools, with girls receiving special attention.
Special teams for girls' education have been started up in Rwanda's 30 districts.
The Government of Rwanda has also adopted a child-friendly school model, a model supported by UNICEF, as a standard for all schools in the country.
Today, girls' education has emerged as a national priority, in part, due to the fact that Rwanda's constitution requires at least 30% of women to be represented in decision-making bodies that this is in the political sphere, civil society and the private sector.
This is why we must prepare little girls from nursery schools and beyond if we are to continue to have girls and women in decision-making positions.
It is above all up to us women who are in decision-making bodies to redouble our efforts and raise our voices to end sexual harassment and violence against children, two obstacles to girls' education.
In 2014, my last daughter had her friend who was raped and became pregnant when she was finishing her first year of college. Her mother stopped paying for her school fees.
She quit her studies, my daughter begged me to pay her the scholarship, I did my best and the poor girl fought, completed her bachelor’s degree and she also learned sewing.
On top of this, she learnt sewing and she now makes assorted products like tablecloths, shoes, bags, among others which she sells
The income from her craft helped her to pay the scholarship for her Master’s in Gender Studies. Our daughters are "palaces of wealth" we must assist them to overcome the obstacles of education.
What about Covid-19?
According to a report by Save The Children, more than 262 million children globally are out of school due to Covid-19.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, Sub-Saharan Africa already had the highest school exclusion rates, with more than a fifth of children aged 6 to 11 out of school normally.
Covid-19 has resulted in the closure of schools in all countries of Africa, for periods ranging from 3 weeks to indefinite time. This prolonged school shutdown will deprive millions more of children of their basic right to education.
The lack of an alternative learning system requires strong political leadership to avoid further weakening of an already fragile education system.
Children who are not in school are also more likely to be abused and exploited or to be forcibly recruited into armed groups, and for girls, some are more likely to never return to school when the courses resume.
As far as economic pressure increases on low-income families, children will be in need of working to increase family income or become victims of child marriage, and girls, in particular, may also face pregnancy early and at a disproportionate burden of caring for family members who contract the virus or caring for younger children.
Governments, civil society and the private sector must work together to buy radios for vulnerable households to enable children to attend school. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89% of learners do not have access to personal computers at home, 82% do not have access to the internet, and an estimated 28 million learners live in places not served by mobile networks.
Governments must invest heavily in the development of electrical infrastructure.
On the occasion of the International Day of the Girl 2020, I encourage girls to continue their studies, to integrate into movements or associations of young people, to choose role models who are around them, to collaborate with women who are in decision-making positions to advocate for issues that hinder their education and emancipation.
I call upon all my sisters in the political sphere to make girls' education a national priority. Let us eradicate the socio-cultural barriers that prevent girls from accessing school.
In this time of Covid-19, it is important to bring intensive sensitization to communities so that parents take care of children, give them time to access educational programs broadcast by governments.