How Anitha Went Back to School
School’s out for the day in rural Rwanda. As the rest of the children head home, Anitha and her friends from the school’s children’s club gather in the yard. There are stacks of reeds and other materials, and the kids settle down to make baskets together, the sounds of their conversation and laughter ringing out as they work together.
It’s a fun activity, but for Anitha, it represents something more. She can sell the baskets she makes in the after-school club to cover the cost of school supplies and supporting her family. It wasn’t that long ago that she was forced to drop out due to poverty. She’s back in school now, and she intends to stay there.
Dropping Out to Go to Work
Anitha was just nine years old in 2017 when her family’s poverty meant she could no longer afford school. The family needed Anitha to work to cover bills that were piling up. “I dropped out of school when I reached grade 5 because my parents could not afford it. I had no other choice than dropping out,” she says.
So Anitha joined more than 132 million other girls around the world who are also not in education, many of them forced out by poverty just like she was.
“I dropped out of school when I reached grade 5 because my parents could not afford it. I had no other choice than dropping out.” – Anitha, 13
At first, Anitha began fetching water for people in the neighbourhood. The work involves carrying heavy jugs and jerrycans long distances in the hot sun from wells and taps to people’s homes. She earned the equivalent of $0.10 – $0.15 for a day’s hard work.
To make more money, Anitha began selling sugar cane in a local market. Sugar cane must be cut with large knives or machetes to be prepared for sale. It's no job for a nine-year-old to be doing. The risks of injury mean it’s the sort of work that’s illegal for children, though the law is widely flouted. But selling sugar cane meant earning more than twice what Anitha could make hauling water (about $0.30 – $0.40 each day), and her family needed the money.
Anitha was one of millions of girls who are trapped in a cycle of poverty that starts when they are forced to leave school. But then she got lucky.
Anitha’s former school had formed a children’s club with the support of Right To Play. She’d kept in touch with a few of her former school mates who were members, and they invited her to join them for an after-school play activity.
Playing for Independence
Before long, Anitha was regularly attending club meetings, where kids would draw, play, and do handicrafts like making toys or baskets. Playing with the other children was a relief after a long day working in the market.
Stephanie, one of the teachers who supported the club, challenged Anitha to come back to school. It was a school club, so if she wanted to continue, she had to come back to class. Anitha was worried that school officials wouldn’t let her back in after she had dropped out, but Stephanie helped her re-enroll. With Stephanie’s support, Anitha was also able to get her parents to agree to let her go back.
“We empowered her and told her that if she succeeds in school she could become an important person, but she had to stop working and come back to school.” – Stephanie, Anitha’s teacher
“Anitha came back to the club, and we started doing all the activities together, drawing, making things, handicrafts, and playing, and many more activities related to basic education,” Stephanie says.
“We empowered her and told her that if she succeeds in school she could become an important person, but she had to stop working and come back to school.”
Money remained an issue for Anitha and her family, but the club had a solution for her. One of the club’s handicraft activities was making baskets, and Anitha excelled at it. The club would help her make baskets, and she could sell them in her spare time. That meant no more dangerous work with knives, and no more running around in the sun carrying heavy loads of water. And she made more money. Each basket sold for as much money as she would have made for a full day’s work in the market.
Having learned the hard way what her life would be without an education, Anitha came back to school with a purpose. Her teachers were impressed with her studiousness and how she threw herself into education.
“My heart was filled with happiness. I started studying with all my effort and I became first in my class because of it,” Anitha says.
“My heart was filled with happiness. I started studying with all my effort and I became first in my class because of it.” – Anitha
Anitha has continued going to school, even under the tough conditions of the global pandemic. She still sells baskets to fund her own studies, and she’s still a member of the club. Now that she’s no longer forced to spend all day working, she puts the time into studying, and into helping other children who are stuck in child labour like she once was.