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Rwanda is empowering girls, with a little help from Seattle

The first class of the Rwanda Girls Initiative, launched by two Seattle women

It has become a mantra in aid and development circles today to say that empowering girls is the single most effective means of fighting poverty, inequity and any number of ills in poor countries.

This is one of the international community’s top priorities, for good reason.

But saying and doing are two different things. Talk is cheap, they say.

Paul Kagame’s government in Rwanda is clearly walking the talk on girls and women — and a number of Seattle organizations are assisting in the gender revolution happening here.

I heard Kagame speak at the Clinton Global Initiative on gender equity in late September. I was in New York City covering a United Nations meeting on global health but broke away to attend some of the Clinton confab and was there when Kagame spoke:

“The onus is on those who have been privileged in the past; men and boys, to make sure that we address this problem of imbalance,” Kagame told the New York crowd. “It is not that boys and men are doing a favour to women. It’s just about making sure that they work together to play their part in their own development and development of the country.”

The Rwandan president was a big hit at the elite gathering, as he is often is among the aid and development cognoscenti.

I’m in Rwanda for two weeks along with a gang of journalists sponsored by the International Reporting Project, based at Johns Hopkins University. Our first interview, back in Washington, D.C., was with a human rights and Africa expert who warned us, basically, not to believe all the success stories.

“It can be hard to get at the truth in Rwanda,” said Timothy Longman, director of African studies at Boston University, a critic of Kagame’s authoritarian nature who warns that Rwanda is not as rosy as often portrayed. “People often tell Westerners what they think you want to hear, or what officials want you to hear.”

But one thing that almost everyone agrees on, Longman said, is that under Kagame’s regime the opportunities and social expectations for women and girls have improved significantly.

“There’s no question, he said. “They have changed society.”

Rwanda has the most women in elected office, currently a gender majority in its parliament, of any nation in the world. I believe Sweden and the Netherlands are running close behind. Improving girls’ education is seen as critical to the nation’s long-term economic success, as described in Rwanda Vision 2020.

This land of a thousand hills has some steep ones to climb if it will make good on that vision.

Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated country, with high birth and illiteracy rates in many rural areas. Gaining access to education is still a challenge to many Rwandans, even though the first nine years of schooling are technically free and paid for by the government.

The rural poor, living on little more than a dollar or two a day, still find it difficult to afford given other costs and ‘fees’ of schooling. And those families who must make a choice among which children to send have tended to favor boys.

That’s a trend Rwanda claims to have turned around, achieving gender equity at the primary school level. Several Seattle organizations have pitched in to assist with this transformation.

One such organization that’s gotten a good bit of media attention over the years is a charity started in 2006 by Seattle teenager, Jessica Markowitz, after she visited the country as a young girl.

Called Richard’s Rwanda, Markowitz has raised nearly $100,000 to help pay for girls to attend school. Markowitz continues to receive media attention locally and nationally, largely due to starting her humanitarian career so early in her own life. It’s an inspiring story, but an approach that may be limited to continuing charitable donations.

Another project that’s gotten much less popular attention is the Rwanda Girls Initiative.

The brainchild of two Seattle women, Suzanne Sinegal McGill and Shalisan Foster, the Rwandan Girls Initiative is focused on providing secondary education to girls. Just as important, McGill and Foster built it from the ground up to eventually become self-sustaining by the community it serves.

“We’re focused on secondary education for girls because that’s where the need is greatest,” said McGill.

I talked with McGill and Ralph Coolman, an expert on international development at Washington State University who works on the Rwanda Girls Initiative, before I left Seattle. The school is out of session right now. I had hoped to visit it and see the students in action. I may still if I have time.

The students at Gashora Academy, first class of the Rwanda Girls Initiative” credit=”RGI

The initiative was launched after McGill went to Rwanda in 2007 with her family, including her father James Sinegal, co-founder and CEO of Costco (which buys a LOT of Rwandan coffee).

“All I’d known about was the genocide and Hotel Rwanda,” McGill said. But once she toured the country, she said she was amazed at the “buzz and energy” aimed at rebuilding the shattered nation — and was especially impressed with Kagame’s pro-women policies and emphasis on girls education.

“They’re doing a good job on primary education but still many aren’t able to get secondary education,” McGill said.She consulted with longtime friend Shalisan Foster and, to make a long story short, launched the Rwanda Girls Initiative.

The first project of the initiative is the Gashora Girls Academy, which is located in a farming community (Gashora) about 40 minutes south of Kigali. Some 90 girls just recently completed the first year of class (they attend according to the calendar year) and another 90, the second class, come on in January. Eventually, the new school in Gashora will house some 270 girls.

“Our goal is to make this self-sustaining and turn it over to the community in five years,” McGill said.

That’s where Coolman comes in. He’s worked all over the world assisting poor, rural communities improve their agricultural productivity. McGill and Foster enlisted him three years ago to help make Gashora both a successful school and lucrative agricultural cooperative.

The girls academy is situated on 25 acres, half of it school grounds and half of it crop land.

Collecting water at the Gashora Girls Academy” credit=”RGI

“We grew 17 tons of seeds that we sold on the local market recently and have a great zucchini crop right now,” Coolman said. They’ve terraced the land to protect against soil erosion and collect water and planted papaya and mango trees, he said, along with peppers, sunflowers, cabbages and tomatoes.

“I think it’s fair to say it’s the best high school for agricultural production in the country,” said Coolman.

These girls all come from farming families so the academy is based on the concept of both supporting the local economy while also exploiting local talents and resources to help pay for the school.

The Rwanda Ministry of Education pays some of the funds for the girls academy, Coolman said, but the idea is as their approach proves itself the government and local community will take full responsibility.

And if it works, McGill said, the goal will be to launch this approach in other communities.

“We’re learning from them as we go on this, incorporate what they do well already into this strategy aimed at improving girls education and leadership in the community,” she said.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.