On a hillside in rural Rwanda, we dance. With arms raised, like the horns of sacred cows, we shuffle then clap, fifty pairs of hard-worked hands beating together. Afternoon shadows stretch across the rolling hills. The faint smell of motorcycle gasoline drifts through eucalyptus trees. The village leader raises his voice in song, throaty, near mournful, then drops his hands abruptly and we fall silent. The meeting has begun.
Today, my co-worker and I, representatives of a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with the village community, have been invited to attend a discussion on the barriers to girls’ education.
“What causes our girls to drop out of school?” the village leader asks.
“Poverty,” the answers begin.
“People don’t think girls can get jobs after graduation.”
A bell begins to ring, tolling six o’clock mass at a nearby church. The group is quiet.
Then, an older woman begins to speak.
“Toilets,” she offers, “Especially for older girls. Once they are older, no toilets can mean no school.”
I came to Rwanda last July, partnering with an NGO, Health Poverty Action, which works to address the root concerns of health. In the year that has passed, over and over again the ability to secure individuals’ basic human rights has come back to access to water and sanitation.
“The best place to make an impact on improving the lives of girls and women,” writes Sustainable Sanitation & Water Management, “is in water and sanitation. The lack of adequate toilets and hygiene in schools is a critical barrier to girls’ school attendance and education.” According to UNICEF, of the 121 million school-age children that are not in school, the majority, upwards of 65 million children, are girls. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, nearly 17 million girls are out of school, most of whom end their formal education after reaching puberty.
The sheer magnitude of these statistics can mask the uniquely personal nature of the challenge many girls face in attaining an education. While fetching water from a local spring in Rwanda, I spoke with a young woman who reminded me of the many individual narratives behind the numbers.
Christine is a vibrant, excited young woman, with hands in constant motion, who always wore a gap-toothed grin across her face. Christine visited Kibeho, the Rwandan community where I lived as a tourist. She spoke with lilting, eloquent French, and soon had me caught up in the stories she spun of her travels and family. When I told her I was working on a girls’ education and menstrual hygiene program, she tapped my shoulder.
“Oh! I have a story for you.” She settled back against the grassy hillside. “It was time for the new school term and I was talking with my mother. I was talking to her about the menstruating times at school. What do I do?”
I leaned forward, intrigued by Christine’s openness on a topic many women find taboo.
“There were so many students, so few toilets. It would often be embarrassing. I came home one day and there was a map of Africa,” she paused, laughing, glancing sideways at me with a grin, “you know, all over my skirt. When my mother saw me crying she asked, ‘If you go to school for one more year, will you [turn out to] be President Kagame?’” She shook her head emphatically. “That was the end of my schooling.”
Christine dropped out of school at age thirteen. She has since gone on to be a successful businesswoman, participating in a tailoring cooperative in the capital, and her cheer is undeniable. Yet her story of education curtailed by female physiology is one that many girls share.
Since the mid 1990s, basic education has been tuition-free in Rwanda, and the nation boasts a remarkable 97% percent primary school enrollment rate. However, the development of school infrastructure, such as latrines, to support the growing enrolled population still lags behind the education policy. As a result, rural schools often have as many as sixty students using one toilet. In such scenarios, basic human rights—the right to dignity and to health—can be difficult to maintain. Rather than face insecurity or harassment after puberty, many young women are left with no other choice but to drop out of school.
To address this barrier to female education, there is a growing movement connecting the care of young women’s bodies to the growth of their minds. Health Poverty Action is joined by many NGOs working towards making school environments more ‘girl-friendly’ by constructing latrines, girls’ changing rooms, and hand-washing stations—facilities that will allow adolescent girls to manage menstruation with privacy and hygiene. It's no silver bullet, but it is an important step forward as we continue to work towards equal education.