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Women’s Day in Rwanda

From ROP Stories

ROP Celebrates International Women’s Day
by Sean Jones
13 March, 2012

To be honest I don’t recall having ever heard of International Women’s Day before I came to Rwanda. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve just been oblivious all these years or if it’s because it’s just not a major holiday in the States. My guess is the latter, but only because America is a country where women for the most part have the equality and respect they deserve. In Rwanda, however, as in so many other developing countries around the world, women are still treated as second class citizens, sometimes by law, sometimes by their society, but usually by both.

The Rwandan government is quite progressive when it comes to women’s rights as far as African countries go. Famously the Rwandan Parliament has the highest ratio of women to men in the entire world, Western nations included. There are numerous laws on the books giving females equal rights to education, employment and even land ownership. As a Westerner it’s easy to be unimpressed, but in most of Africa girls are still not guaranteed access to school and land and property inheritance for women is almost unheard of. Imagine being a wife and mother in Africa and your husband dies. If you have no sons everything your family owns get passed to the nearest male relative. It could be his brother or distant cousin you don’t even know. Whoever he ended up being he wouldn’t have to (and most likely would not) share any of it with you and you would have no legal recourse. This is how it is in many regions of Africa and it used to be this way in Rwanda as well until relatively recently.

Anyway, back to Women’s Day. It sort of sneaked up on us but we decided to have a little celebration after school had finished. As many of you know we do not have any girls living with us at the ROP but we do allow about 30 girls from local poor families to attend our school free of charge. When we first opened our school to these young ladies we had some issues early on with our boys, and outside boys, giving them a hard time. But through several workshops and group chats conducted by our social workers on gender equality and respect for women we have been able to change our boys’ attitudes towards girls and bring most of the problems to an end.

After school everyone made their way into our dining hall – the girls on one side and the boys on the other. It seemed a little strange at first and I considered having them mix together, but in the end it worked out better because we could address the boys as a group and then the girls as a group. Sandrine, our head teacher, spoke to the children first, followed by Elisabeth, our head social worker. Then Jenny spoke to the children, explaining that a man is not more valuable simply by virtue of being male; that we all have strengths and weaknesses and that we should respect each other based on our skills, talents and accomplishments rather than on our sex. My turn came next and I asked our boys to consider a world without women and all the beauty, love and sensibility they bring to the world. I added that a world composed only of men would not be a very pleasant place and probably wouldn’t last very long.

After the speeches we had a short Q&A session with the children and then we wrapped up ceremony. I wasn’t really sure what our boys would take from our words but I think now that they did have an impact. Although Rwanda has many laws proclaiming the equality of women, the fact is that gender bias remains strong in Rwandan society, particularly in the country’s poor rural areas, where most of our children have come from. As I told the children on Women’s Day, it’s most likely too late to change the attitudes of adults in the country, but change comes from the youth, and they all – both boys and girls – have an opportunity to be vehicles for change in Rwanda, and perhaps Africa as a whole.

See more photos at ROP Stories.

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