By H.E Mrs Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda
‘Persistence in the pursuit of excellence; Leading by example; Being a role model and a mentor; being the best version of you; committing to a cause that is higher than self”.
These are some of the words you will hear when the question is asked: ‘What does being a Best Performing Girl, (a BPG) or Inkubito z’Icyeza, mean to you?’
If I were to summarise the last 15 years invested in inspiring girls to excel and outdo themselves, I would say that they have been the most rewarding of experiences for us at the Imbuto Foundation, as I am sure it has been for so many others who have focused on girls’ education and their empowerment..
The past 15 years have been equally rewarding for the over 5,000 Best performing girls, as it has been a feather in the cap for the teachers who taught them and the families to which they belong, a shared joy for the well-wishers who sponsored them and the communities at large that supported them.
This journey that begun 15 years ago, was spurred on by the urgency to lift all barriers to girls’ equal access to education, to ensure that they not only stayed in school, but exceled whilst there. It was borne of the urgency to trigger the full realization of the girls’ potential.
It was – and still is – a dream to nurture a generation of self-aware, confident, poised, efficient and articulate young women, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with their brothers to take our country, Rwanda, to the next frontier of scientific, technological and human advancement.
We dared to share this dream with many and today, we are truly proud of the partnerships that we forged with the government of Rwanda, bilateral and multilateral partners, the civil society, private sector and benevolent individuals from far and wide. Small seeds sown then, have grown into mighty oaks today.
Our BPGs have graduated from prestigious institutions around the world; they have become senior members of the Rwandan government, doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists, technology pioneers and entrepreneurs. Some have also joined the Imbuto Foundation and are helping to build another cohort of future leaders! Through the BPG Alumni Network, they have become their sisters’ keepers, started ventures together and mentored and supported their peers to strive to be the very best of citizens.
Education is a basic human right, but despite all international and national efforts, 31 million girls are still out of school around the world. (UNESCO, 2019). Due to social and cultural factors and at times economic pressure, the chances of girls staying in school to realize their full potential and play an effective role in society thereafter is significantly reduced.
This is a missed opportunity for them to move out of cyclic poverty and to shape the future they want. A special focus, therefore, on girls’ education is not only necessary but a powerful tool of empowerment and a direct contribution to hastening the attainment of countries’ development goals.
At Imbuto Foundation, we align our policies and programmes with national, continental and international development frameworks, and as such in 2005, we embarked on a journey to achieve three objectives: To (1) have all girls enrolled in school; (2) ensure that they stayed in school and completed all levels of education; and (3) encourage them to explore and excel in all subjects, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Over the years, this “Promotion of Girls’ Education Campaign” project has taken us all around the country, as we met girls, whose parents’ support and life-changing outlook helped their daughters fulfil their academic potential. One such best performing girl is Florentine; whose success story is a true inspiration:
Florentine, a three-time BPG and a mentor, is now a medical doctor who contributes to our national vision of a healthy and dignified life for all Rwandans, through equal access to healthcare. Florentine Hategekimana continually promotes the right to access accurate information on sexual and reproductive health in order to make informed decisions and choices. She is one of over 5,000 Inkubito z’Icyeza awarded to date for academic excellence.
Jackline is another role model who joined us as a motivational speaker at a 10th anniversary campaign event.. She grew up in a community where the custom of guterurwa or ‘kidnapping girls for marriage’ was practiced. However, Jackline’s father publicly stood up against this custom and protected her, going as far as having her brothers escort her to, and from school, to ensure her safety at all times. Currently the Executive Secretary of the National Women’s Council, Jackline Kamanzi recalls that her father’s unconditional support and love was a strong motivation that enabled her, in 2000, to become the best female performer at national level, prior to pursuing a law degree and a Masters in Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation.
While it remains imperative to encourage girls to study hard and excel, an equally important obligation is that of raising awareness among local leaders, parents and communities – just as Jackline’s father did – that gender equality and in particular, girls’ education is a sure pathway to achieve social upliftment and long-term sustainable development. It is the pathway to the ‘Rwanda we want’.
Indeed, providing equal opportunities to education and employment, stimulates economic growth, wellbeing and prosperity for an entire nation and within families.
We must be vigilant to nip in the bud, any threat to the developmental gains so far achieved through education – and in particular – girls’ education. These are, among others, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. As was highlighted during the Campaign on Ending Child Sexual Abuse launched by the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) in October 2020, the national rate of teenage pregnancy stands at 7.3% (RDHS 2014-15), and over 20% of girls are victims of sexual violence before the age of 18. This has a devastating effect on the psyche, self-esteem and at worst the development trajectory of the young woman.
As parents, mentors, teachers and citizens, we must shift away from resting the sole responsibility on women and girls for ensuring their own safety, and instead, educate our men and boys about positive masculinity.
Let me take this opportunity of our 15th anniversary to call upon you, our sons, brothers, and partners, to actively advocate for the rights and wellbeing of your sisters. I urge you to use your power and goodwill to support their quest for self-actualization. I challenge you to become whistle-blowers, and to break this complicity of silence, riddling our girls with guilt and shame, which, over time, proves more costly to our communities and our future development.
Investing in girls’ education is not – and will never be – at the expense of boys’ progress. It is a temporary measure to bring girls to the starting point in the race for our future.
It is an attempt at social and economic justice and a promise to all that we hold dear in our values and in our constitution as Banyarwanda. So, arise dear men and boys, let us work together for the sake and the good of our beloved country, Rwanda. And this we must do together – girls, women, boys and men.
And to you, our Inkubito z’Icyeza, I have one last ask of you, to always be vigilant and mindful of the unfolding trends before you. Today, it is the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. As achievers and innovators, I ask you to come together to join this global war with every arsenal in the armoury. The pandemic will continue to challenge us in all aspects of our lives, for some time, but not forever. Arise, think out of the box, bring solutions, support your brothers and fathers in this endeavour and make your mark in the annals of history.
Your hard work and dedication to reach excellence have borne fruit and are causes worth celebrating! As we look forward to rewarding more girls of excellence until the threshold is met, may striving for this value continue to be your mantra and at the forefront of all that you do, and may it, at last, propel you towards a brighter and better Rwanda.