Demanding justice for teenage mothers in Rwanda

So far, they have reached 180 young mothers and they are planning to reach out to over a hundred more. Women’s rights organisation Réseau des Femmes is fighting for a brighter future for teenage mothers in Rwanda.

Xavérine Uwimana is national coordinator for Réseau des Femmes Oeuvrant pour le Développement Rural, one of Kvinna till Kvinna's partner organisations in Rwanda. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Aline Niwenshuti
Xavérine Uwimana is national coordinator for Réseau des Femmes Oeuvrant pour le Développement Rural, one of Kvinna till Kvinna's partner organisations in Rwanda. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Aline Niwenshuti

Trauma, rejection, fear and school dropout. These are the biggest risks pregnant girls in the Rwanda face today. By law, sex with a minor is considered rape. Perpetrators are therefore likely to threaten girls not to say anything. When a girl becomes pregnant, she is often rejected by her family and friends and unable to finish her education.

For years, Réseau de Femmes has been locating and reaching out to teenage mothers. They want to empower girls to take charge of their own lives and make informed decisions. They therefore train girls to know their legal rights as well as their sexual and reproductive rights, and how to stay healthy.

“It’s very important, so that they know how to prevent problems in the future,” says Xavérine Uwimana, national coordinator of Réseau de Femmes.

“We want them to understand the problems of unprotected sex and we want them to learn about family planning. This is information they’ve never had before, but that they can pass on to their children.”

Bring justice to the girls

Réseau de Femmes also teaches girls what legal rights they have and supports them to reach out to the right institutions and report abuses. Xavérine explains that having justice helps the girls’ confidence and enables them to have a better life.

Supporting a girl to report a perpetrator isn’t an easy process, Réseau des Femmes works long-term to gain the girls’ trust and to help them gain strength to speak up for themselves. They then invite the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), District Authorities as well as counselling support from ISANGE One Stop, to have a sit-down with the girls.

“We try to encourage the girls to focus on their rights, and not their fears. And the way forward. By the time they meet with the authorities, they are no longer afraid,” says Xavérine.

“They know what will happen and they provide the information that the law enforcement needs,” she continues.

Xavérine explains that representatives from Réseau de Femmes accompany the girls throughout the difficult, and often intimidating, process, because parents or legal guardians might not support their daughters to report. Being there in solidarity with the girls has made a difference. So far, Réseau de Femmes has enabled 32 perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Looking towards the future

Out of the 180 girls, just over 50 have re-enrolled in school. After potential legal processes, Réseau de Femmes continues to support teenage mothers with economic rights and empowerment training. This helps young mothers start and run sustainable businesses, which, in turn, might help them return to school.

Claire is one of 15 teenage mothers running a mushroom growing business. She now has a monthly salary to get by on but aims to go back to school.

“Though I am earning enough to take care of my child, graduating and finding a better job has always been my dream. My dreams may have been slowed down, but they aren’t impossible. I want to go back to school and do business in a professional way and also set a good example for my child,” says Claire.

Xavérine feels the organisation has much more work to do.

“We need to reach more women and girls. So many are suffering and need our help. When we are going around the country, people are always saying ‘We’ve heard about you, why don’t you come here?’ But we need more money,” says Xavérine.

A mission to empower

Xavérine has been involved in Réseau des Femmes since 1996 and took a leading role in 2016. She explains that the support from The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has been very valuable, not least to build capacity, network and connect with other, likeminded organisations.

When asked about what motivates her in her job, Xavérine says she has always felt very strongly for the organisation’s mission to empower rural women and girls. She carries the stories of brave girls who’ve changed the course of their lives with her.

“I feel content when I see the change in girls we meet. When they are happy and able to move on.”

 

Kvinna till Kvinna has worked for women’s rights in Rwanda since 2017. We support and work with local women’s rights organisations to end gender-based violence and defend women’s rights. Réseau des Femmes Oeuvrant pour le Développement Rural works to empower rural women and girls in the northern and eastern provinces of Rwanda, among others, by empowering teenage mothers and girls and working with communities to prevent gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy. Learn more about our work in Rwanda

26 April 2021