Rwanda’s most vulnerable and marginalized youth face increasing opportunities to obtain primary and secondary education, but academic achievements without meaningful opportunities for developing vocational skills and building job prospects will leave these youth without hope for a successful future. Worse still, those who find themselves at the end of their academic journey and with nowhere to go are increasingly implicating themselves in a cycle of criminality and delinquency.
Human rights advocates speak emphatically of the right to education, affirming its universality and importance as an end in itself. But the right to education must be linked to the right of each individual to have a vision of him or herself in the near future, putting newly learned skills and ideas into practice. The notion of the right to education as a prerequisite for a successful future is mere smoke and mirrors without meaningful opportunities for vocational training.
Global Youth Connect
As a participant in Global Youth Connect’s (GYC) Human Rights Delegation in August 2012, I had the chance to engage with three very unique communities, each at a wildly different stage in the journey from education to employment.Children in the Mubuga sector in the Western Province of Rwanda know that school is important, yet they face many layers of obstacles to attending school — from embarrassment over their often dirty appearance to the large distance between home and school.
Congolese refugees in the Kiziba camp near Kibuye — over half of whom are youth — are given access to primary education, but far too many are unable to continue to secondary school for financial and logistical reasons. Moreover, those who max out their time in school find themselves disillusioned and with “nothing to do and nowhere to go.” Too many have engaged in theft, sexual exploitation and substance abuse — indeed a cycle of criminality — in reaction to their hopelessness and lack of opportunities to turn education into employment.
I attended the graduation ceremony of 39 wonderful young women, the first graduating class of the Akilah Institute for Women, which was cofounded by a Global Youth Connect alumnus, Elizabeth Davis. Elizabeth explained how the two-year program gives these young women a competitive and holistic education that is “market relevant” — focussed on maintaining the school’s 100% job placement rate and promoting long-term success for these graduates.
The Children of Mubuga
At the Mubuga Sector, my Global Youth Connect colleagues and I — the delegation is equal parts Rwandan and Canadian/American — met young children and teenagers who are part of the heavily marginalized “Potter” community. They experience poverty and lack supplies necessary for a successful school experience, namely clean clothes and textbooks. They also live a considerable distance — 45 minutes by foot — from their school, and they often become so immersed in chores at home that they forget to attend school. After a few hours of joint community service — umuganda — digging foundations for a new, badly-needed housing project, our delegation went to a large field where around three hundred children participated in our interactive workshop on the right to education.
We introduced the children to simple theatre exercises to allow them to express their thoughts on access to education. We asked them, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and smiled as they responded by miming actions such as driving, cleaning, and teaching. Their collective enthusiasm for education was palpable, yet the challenges facing this community in particular are striking. Getting the kids to school is an issue all to itself. Yet it would be a mistake to focus solely on increasing bums in classroom seats. These children deserve the chance to develop a realistic, motivating vision of themselves active in their community, putting their knowledge and skills into practice to serve others and earn a livelihood.
The Kiziba Refugee Camp
At the Kiziba Refugee Camp, nearly 20,000 Congolese refugee have completed almost two decades of waiting to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo — a dream that is looking less and less likely as tensions have swelled and the army has proven unable to control rebel elements.
The Global Youth Connect delegates were impressed by many of the services at the camp, especially health care. However, a dire shortfall in funding for secondary school education, coupled with a lack of opportunities for educated refugees to gain employment in what was designed to be a temporary dwelling, means more young people are becoming engaged in a cycle of drug use, sexual violence and criminality. In addition, individuals affiliated with the M-23 rebel group — currently working to destabilize the DRC — are reportedly entering the camp inconspicuously and recruiting refugees to return to the DRC and fight for their Kinyarwanda-speaking brethren.
Half of the residents at Kiziba camp are below the age of 18, and all receive access to primary education thanks to the work of NGOs like the Jesuit Refugee Service, under the direction of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). There are considerable barriers to education, however. Last year, 17 classrooms at the primary school were destroyed due to mudslides and although UNHCR has built new ones, they are not yet functional due to lack of funds to furnish the rooms with desks and chairs. Most youth cannot afford to attend secondary school.
There have been some bandaid solutions — short-term gifts, simply. A prominent foundation has provided secondary school scholarships to around 300 girls for the past five years, yet this donation will soon expire. It should be remembered that 300 is a tiny number considering the total number of girls at the camp. Furthermore, boys are left behind, stirring up all kinds of animosity. UNHCR officials admitted that while it is difficult to say no to a donation regardless of its specifications, they should fulfill their responsibility of ensuring — as they put it — that donations do not harm the refugee population in any way and seeking a gender balance in the future.
Meanwhile, there are a number of exceptional youth at the camp who have managed to attend post-secondary school, including my fellow Global Youth Connect delegate, Josue, who works as a physics teacher at the camp. However, as Josue explained, returning to Kiziba upon graduation can be depressing and disillusioning. Too often these well-educated young leaders cannot find an opportunity to put their knowledge and skills to work. They are denied of the chance to envision themselves prospering, earning a living and building a successful future. Senior level positions with the NGOs operating at the camp itself nearly always go to Rwandans from outside.
While visiting the camp, we learned that many refugees who reach the highest level of education that is feasible to them feel they have “nothing to do and nowhere to go.” These sentiments combined with the lack of law enforcement at the camp amount to an increasing number of youth engaging in criminal activity. Some young adults have received permission to leave the camp for the nearby city of Kibuye, where there have been reports of involvement in prostitution, drug dealing and more. Even more shocking and dangerous is the alleged recruitment of vulnerable youth at refugee camps in Rwanda to the M-23 rebel group. The fight to protect Kiziba’s youth population is far from over, and will only simmer once these youth gain opportunities to develop, earn and grow — to see themselves in the future, successful.
As UNHCR recently described it in an online article, there is indeed a “culture of impunity” at the camp. With the gates wide open to visitors, not one police officer at the camp, and so much of the UN’s attention focussed on the recent arrivals from DRC at other camps, Kiziba camp is vulnerable to a state of lawlessness. Improved access to secondary school can help break the cycle of criminality and promote healthy development. But it is not enough. Education must be a passageway to opportunities for meaningful employment and career advancement. Without these opportunities, more youth will find themselves without direction and hope after years of working hard to succeed in school.
Akilah Institute for Women
Building the bridge between access to education and access to careers is a priority all over the world. The youth of the Mubuga sector and the Kiziba Refugee Camp face especially daunting challenges, as ensuring access to basic primary and secondary education is itself a challenge for both communities.
I was particularly inspired by the 39 female graduates of the Akilah Institute for Women’s first two-year program for hospitality management. Here is an innovative program which seeks to “empower young women with the skills, knowledge and confidence to find meaningful employment and launch ventures in the rapidly growing sectors of the economy.”
But Akilah isn’t just about vocational training. And it’s 100% job placement rate for its first graduating class isn’t the school’s only point of pride. Rather, they skillfully combine career preparation with “confidence and empowerment,” “leadership and ethics courses,” “community service,” and “mindfulness and counseling.” Judging by the general elation and excitement of the commencement ceremony, it is clear that the 39 young graduates embraced this holistic education model beyond the founders’ wildest dreams. What could have become an all-girl, cutthroat, competitive race to get the top jobs evolved into a family of sorts, with students and staff supporting one another to succeed.
The graduates will go on to work in the hospitality industry, including several for Mariott Hotels International. They will begin in Dubai and will remain with the company when they open their first hotel in Rwanda, where they will assume managerial roles!
Beyond the infectious spirit of the group, the magic of Akilah’s success is its rolodex of private sector partners, who provide mentorship, internships and connections to entry-level jobs. This is a brilliant formula which could be expanded to prepare graduates for other sectors. Indeed, the founders plan to open campuses throughout Africa.
Is it possible to imagine the schools in Mubuga sector or the Kiziba refugee camp finding such willing partners? It is possible that these schools could adopt a “market-relevant curriculum” that is engaging and linked to future success?