“I know I can become a doctor because anything is possible for me; I am determined to achieve my highest goals,” says Julienne. The outspoken and confident 12-year-old girl has earned a reputation for getting things done during her time as chairperson of the Leadership Club in her primary school in Rwanda. The club members are well-known in the village of Mudende for their persistence and confidence in advocating for children’s right to education.
The biggest barrier for children to get an education is their parents who keep them out of school to work in the fields and do chores at home.
As Julienne explains, “the biggest barrier for children to get an education is their parents who keep them out of school to work in the fields and do chores at home.” Changing this status quo became the focus of the Leadership Club at Kanyundo Primary School where Julienne attends class five.
“After being trained by Right To Play in leadership skills, our club wanted to make a contribution to our community by helping to solve one of the big challenges facing other children,” says Julienne. “We started a campaign called ‘Let girls go back to school’ to focus our efforts on a problem which affects all of us.”
“Parents who did not go to school are likely to keep their children out of school,” says Julienne who discovered this fact after visiting the homes in the village with her leadership club.
Julienne has a clear understanding of the world she lives in, observing that any child left out of school today is a problem for the future. “Parents who did not go to school are likely to keep their children out of school,” says Julienne who discovered this fact after visiting the homes in the village with her leadership club. During these home visits the club members, working in close partnership with local leaders, tried to convince parents who were keeping their children out of school to embrace education. “We explained to parents the importance of their children attending school and we got the most resistance from parents who had never attended school themselves,” adds Julienne.
“They would say, ‘I didn’t go to school, but I can farm and earn a living with my family,’” she adds. “We realized these parents needed more effort, so we made numerous visits accompanied by school and local leaders who helped us to convince these parents that education is important for their children.”
Within three months, the campaign directly impacted the enrolment of 78 children who had never been to school or had dropped out of primary school. After each door-to-door home visit, the club members identified children in the community not attending school. Then, with the support of the school administration and community leaders, a group of members would visit the home and talk to the parents. When some parents remained unresponsive, Julienne enlisted the help of local leaders to lend their cause more gravitas and to convince the parents that they needed to change their attitude towards education.
According to community leaders, the Leadership Club is an agent of social change much needed by the village. “Julienne and the other club members are eye-openers,” says Elias, 46, a local leader. “They have stepped up as agents of change, challenging social norms like the way parents expect girls to behave timidly and do whatever they are told. Keeping children out of school is against local and international laws, therefore we applaud Julienne for speaking out and we support her 100 per cent.”
“Julienne and the other club members are eye-openers,” says Elias, 46, a local leader. “They have stepped up as agents of change, challenging social norms like the way parents expect girls to behave timidly and do whatever they are told.
The Leadership Club was invited to the district celebrations of International Women’s Day, and performed a well-received skit about children’s rights, catching the attention of the Mayor, Jeremie, who donated a cash prize for buying school supplies for children who could not afford them. Mahoro, 32, a parent at the school said she was very proud of the children and their campaign. “These children are respectful, resourceful and brave,” says Mahoro. “Children used to stay quietly in the background, but these days things have changed and we have girls like Julienne who can be leaders with the best ideas.”
When Right To Play trained the club members, the focus of the sessions was leadership skills, communication, self-determination and the importance of being a valuable member of the community. The 126 members, ages 8 to 14, were encouraged to develop analytical skills and the ability to respond creatively to the everyday challenges they face. In the weekly meetings, the children discussed child rights and examples of abuse in their community. Through this process, they determined that they would tackle the issue of children out of school.
The club has since become a fixture of community life due to their regular entertainment presentations. Once a month, the community is treated to plays, songs and theatrical games that sensitize them about the importance of education.
“In addition to home visits and talking to parents, we do community work alongside adults like cleaning of public spaces and road repairs,” explains Julienne. “Afterwards, as people rest, the club entertains them and this is an opportunity to voice important issues.” The regularity of this activity and the willingness of the audience has given children opportunities to polish their public speaking skills, as well as built up their confidence, self-esteem and sense of community responsibility.
“Being part of the leadership club and the opportunity to help others has shown us the importance of education in building a secure future,” says Julienne. “Because girls like me are still missing education, I am motivated to bring them back to school as a benefit for the whole community.”
“Every child deserves to go to school and to choose any career that will make them contribute meaningfully to society,” she adds. “Being a doctor is my choice because I enjoy helping people. For me, school is a place where children can be changed; our club is not only about being able to read, write and count, it is where we have become confident and supportive of each other. The club activities have taught me to look after myself, my friends and all other children.”
Story and photos by Fred Hirwa