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When communities get smart, girls don’t drop out

Almost one year since we finished college and it’s graduation season again.  We attended a graduation party here, back in September (see Christina’s post), for the elite all-girls school Fawe.  Since then, I’ve realized all the factors that conspire against Rwandan girls who want to graduate. According to a group of primary school teachers we are working with in rural Mahembe, a suspicious number of girls disappear around puberty. In Rwanda this ‘coincidence’ isn’t suspicious at all, and it is reported in rural schools around the country. Christine, the president of the team that calls itself “Perseverance,” explained that girls drop out of school for many reasons related to puberty: they want to escape harassment from boys, menstrual periods are hard to manage away from home, and, just like in the US, teenage girls get pregnant. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline noted the inadequate facilities at school for menstruating girls.  There are no sanitation supplies available, unlike in the US where tampons and pads wait neatly next to the sink or in a metal dispenser on the wall.  There is no water for the girls to wash out their rags, clean their stained clothes, or even wash their hands of embarrassing evidence.  There is no place to rest when cramps become unbearable. Most importantly, there is no privacy.  Boys and girls share the same latrines— a mud outhouse with a hole in the ground and a feeble wood-plank door that seems perfectly designed for enterprising boys who spy and squeal while a girl spends extra long in the latrine. The teachers are raising money to build a separate latrine for girls and a private area with a spiket for washing.  They also hope to provide pads every month.* This measure will ensure that girls continue to attend school through menstruation; their goal is to decrease the number of girls who stay home during menstruation to just 40%. But the problem isn’t solved with a few pads and a better bathroom. The teachers know that menstruation isn’t the only reason girls drop out around puberty. Teenage pregnancy is a great concern in this predominantly Christian country.  Rwandan schoolgirls end up pregnant for many of the same reasons as American girls, and for other ones, too. Sometimes they don’t know the link between sex and pregnancy. Other times, they fall prey to “sugar daddies” who offer them candy or spending money in exchange for sex.  In Kigali, sugar daddies are usually well-dressed men with cars. At Mahembe School, they are young boys with bicycle taxis who hang out around the school. These older boys tempt the schoolgirls with coveted fried donuts and rides to and from school. Girls don’t think they can attend school while pregnant, much less with a child, and so after their mistake, they drop out. There were ten such cases last year.

These billboards dot the country, warning against Shuga Dadi. Some girls are lured in by rides or candy, then get pregnant and drop out of school. "Sinigurisha" means "I am not for sale."

Not all who drop out are pregnant. Boys harass girls with mature bodies, and sometimes it’s just easier to stay home. Parents know that this harassment happens, so they take preventative measures. One study of rural schools in Tanzania found that girls’ performance started lagging behind boys’ around puberty because they weren’t allowed outside the home after 6pm and couldn’t participate in group study sessions.** According to the Mahembe teachers, parents don’t see much value in educating girls.  “They think that if she goes to school, she’ll get pregnant and drop out, and then they’ll lose their money [from tuition].” And the loss of money is nothing compared to the loss of family pride. It is not uncommon for a single mother to be beaten by her brothers and kicked out of the house.*** The team’s comprehensive solution includes workshops for girls, taxi-bikers, and parents. They will emphasize to fathers that it is just as important to educate girls as boys, and that their daughter is not guaranteed to “waste” their money by finding a boy and getting pregnant. The pesky taxi-bikers will learn about safe sex, and the girls will be educated on the myriad of issues they face so that they will be better equipped to make good decisions. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline are also introducing a reproductive health curriculum for all Mahembe students aged twelve to eighteen. They will partner with the local clinic to hold open public workshops about HIV, promoting condom use. For the girls who have already left school, community social workers are being dispatched to follow their cases and work with the family to re-enroll the daughter. “If people are educated about reproductive health,” a team member told us, “the number of unwanted pregnancies will decrease, and fewer girls will drop out of school.”  Fewer drop-outs means more graduations, more parties, more women in skilled jobs, and one more step towards gender equality. The Stats 73.2%:  US high school completion rate 75%: Rwandan ninth grade completion rate (after 9th grade, education is no longer free) Neither country reported a notable sex difference. I maintain that in Rwanda, there is an inequality in real opportunity for education; more girls would graduate if the system were different and they felt safe at school, were supported by their parents, and understood how to prevent pregnancy. (The US data was taken from the most comprehensive report I could find: High School Drop-out and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007, by the US Department of Education. The Rwandan data was taken from the results of a study by the Ministry of Education, which were published in the government newspaper The New Times on April 22, 2010.)

According to our team, some Rwandan girls don't go to school, even though they want to. They fear harassment from boys, there is no place to wash when they are menstruating, their father believes it is a waste of money, or they have gotten pregnant.

*For a creative, local solution to the exorbitant price of sanitary pads, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is engineering sanitary napkins out of banana fiber. http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html **From an interesting paper recommended by a friend: Sommer, M. (2010). “Where the education system and women’s bodies collide: The social and health impact of girls’ experiences of menstruation and schooling in Tanzania.Journal of Adolescence, 33, 521-529. ***This is according to another Global Grassroots team, A Friend Indeed, which provides support to unwed mothers and their stigmatized children.

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