Icon Our Work

Good girls and good education: avoiding the “bad life” in Rwanda


Rwandan children

“We have sex to stay in school, and we want to go to school so that we don’t have to have sex.”

This year’s International Day of the Girl Theme is Innovating for Education. This theme appeals to me on a number of levels, but mainly because it is somewhat unexpected. What I mean by this is that the weight of expectations – from parents, grandparents, teachers, religious figures, siblings, community leaders, boyfriends, husbands – sits heavily on adolescent girls’ shoulders, and the idea that adolescent girls might innovate, that they might do something surprising – and as a result get ahead of the curve – excites me.

Last year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Rwanda conducting research with adolescent girls, talking to them about their lives and their expectations, the barriers and opportunities they have for moving ahead, for achieving their aspirations. I want to highlight some of the most interesting issues related to expectations and education that emerged from discussions with adolescent girls in Rwanda.

First of all, it became clear very quickly that, in Rwandan culture, while boys have value, girls have to work very hard to get value. In Rwanda, a “good” girl is traditionally one who works hard, maintains cordial relationships with her family and community, abstains from sexual activities until marriage, and eventually marries and bears children. Girls in Rwanda – as in many developing countries – are expected from a very young age to put others’ needs before their own. Challenging norms or trying to get a better deal for themselves is considered as insolence.

Related to this, girls are socialised to be compliant caregivers, and to sacrifice their aspirations for the good of others. While compliance can build bonds of trust between a girl and her parents, and even garner parents’ support, it can also work against girls and their future livelihood opportunities. Girls reported that, because of their closeness to their mothers and their understanding of the pressures that mothers are under, they accept parental decisions that are not in their favour. This appeared to be a particularly important issue for girls age 13 – 15, where school drop out is a distinct risk. Immaculee, a 13 year old school girl, told me the following:

“Girls are good friends to their mothers. That’s why girls understand and accept more than boys when they are told their parents can no longer afford their education.” 

Secondly, girls value education very highly – as do most of the parents with whom I spoke. In ranking exercises, without exception girls ranked insufficient education and poverty (with the latter often a direct cause of the former) as the most critical “blockers” to achieving life aspirations. It is clear that girls in school are desperate to stay there, and girls out of school are desperate to get back. Staying in school was the most important enabler of success according to girls, as we see in the below figure. 


Thirdly, education is so important for avoiding “the bad life” of early marriage, early pregnancy, and sex work, that girls are having sex in order to stay in school. In one peri-urban community, 14 year old Constance and her friends revealed that they know girls as young as 10 years old who are selling their bodies in order to pay school fees and buy school supplies, to enable them to stay in school. Constance explained,

“We have sex to stay in school, and we want to go to school so that we don’t have to have sex.” 

Finally, while girls themselves may value an entrepreneurial spirit, there are very few opportunities for girls to exercise this. The majority of girls with whom we spoke feel that they do not have the required education, nor the relevant skills, for gainful employment. Training in Rwanda remains fundamentally disconnected from market demands. While 89% of girls aged 16 – 19 in our study reported that they had considered vocational training, only 12% of girls had accessed this. Even more disappointing is that so many NGO training programmes are not geared to adolescents, but to youth aged 20 – 35, and they are geared even less to adolescent girls, who have very different constraints and opportunities.

So, despite girls’ aspirations and efforts to combine work and school, and to get a good job after completing school, this will not be a dream come true for many. And despite the fact that social norms regarding what work is acceptable for girls is slowly shifting and parents are increasingly seeing the value of educating their daughters, new and innovative opportunities – both in education and in terms of employment – can’t come fast enough for Constance, Immaculee and their friends. 

Rebecca Calder is a Senior Social Development Specialist at Development Pathways. She works extensively on adolescent girl issues.  This blog is in response to International Day of the Girl.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *