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Rwandan and African traditional cultures – like in other parts of the world – more generally tend to promote gender inequality on women’s rights and power. This being my home, I grew up knowing that I did not want to live under a patriarchal system forever.

Growing up, I witnessed gender inequalities and gender-based violence (GBV) all around me. In leadership and education, discrimination in so-called “men’s careers”, and many more obstacles that both hindered girls’ dreams and development in general, but also exposed us to high-risk lives of unprotected sexual intercourse, leading to unplanned pregnancies and the frightening possibility of contracting HIV.

Unfortunately, my past experiences are still relevant in the present. The 2018 Ministry of Education in Rwanda reported that the statistics of girls in science education is 16% compared to boys. The National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) reports that the average salary for women is 20,000 Rwandan francs per month, while it is 26,000 Rwandan francs for men. In the health sector; adolescent girls and young women in the 15-24 age band suffer from HIV infections at a rate 3 times higher than their male peers.

All the above issues materialized in the lives of my friends and relatives, who became GBV survivors in my eyes. Discouraging voices behind my back saying I wouldn’t achieve my dreams as long as I was a woman were a regular occurrence. But my inner voices convinced me to become a leader and a voice for the voiceless. I used to think that this drive was merely personal. This changed when I joined YWCA Safe Spaces and realized that I am not alone in that fight. I just needed a space in which I can share my experiences and where my peers and I could encourage one another.

Safe Spaces awoke power within me to contribute in the fight for girls and women’s rights, and against any form of gender-based violence.

I started eight years ago by volunteering in different organizations working on human and women’s rights. In Rwanda, the DHS report of 2019/2020 shows that five in one-hundred adolescent girls under 18 are pregnant or first-time mothers. This is a result of long-time discrimination against Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) in different areas of life, but pertaining particularly to Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) and life-skills in general.

Indeed, the realities of our biology and its corresponding effects mean that women suffer far more than men from financial dependence, school withdrawal, early-pregnancy, and unpaid care work. Gender inequality and teenage pregnancy are issues that the government of Rwanda has been working on actively by enacting laws, conducting community campaigns, and improving access to services.

The journey to changing mindsets among Rwandans at-large is a long one, and the establishment of Safe Spaces is one of the solutions that should allow adolescent girls and young women to express their emotions without judgment.

In 2021 I became a DREAMS Ambassador (Representing other AGYWs in the program) in a USAID-funded project called ACHIEVE. I now serve 16,302 adolescent girls and young women, including teen mothers, female sex workers, and both in-school and out-of-school AGYW through 77 Safe Spaces. In this endeavor, I have the support of 166 peer mentors in the USAID/IGIRE-WIYUBAKE program, implemented by YWCA Rwanda in Kicukiro District of Kigali city. I advocate for issues affecting AGYW as well as engaging the community through community based HIV prevention awareness raising activities.

In Safe Spaces, AGYW are grouped based on age bands from 10 to 14, 15 to 19, and 20 to 24, where they receive knowledge on SRHR, life skills, financial literacy, and psycho-social support. They also start saving groups, enabling them to gain economic dependence, which is one of the issues that most commonly lead AGYW to unprotected sex.

Uwase Aisha leading a presentation about anatomy for adolescent girls and young women in Rwanda.

Although a great step has been taken from where we began, not enough has been achieved as there are still a large number of people in need whom the project doesn’t serve.

My goal is to be a voice for many more. It is in that spirit that I started a radio talk-show called “Jye n’ubuzima bwajye” that educates, informs, and challenges Rwandan society on topics related to SRHR and gender, and where I collect feedback from people, especially girls all around Rwanda, for advocacy issues as well as sharing life-changing stories.

In this advocacy journey, I learned that Safe Spaces for adolescent girls and young women are power. This power is shaped not only from where that Safe Space is, but more importantly from who contributes to it. What we have been taught, faced, and seen from a young-age cannot disappear in one day, but wounds can be healed when stories shared in safe places with peers are listened to and supported without judgment.

Just as with my daily work of supporting AGYW, there remain many steps to take to support the vulnerable. Teen mothers, their kids, and female sex workers are prime examples for which the life-rebuilding process needs everyone’s attention. Society shuns them, parenting seems ineffective, and unemployment still exposes others. I encourage you to join YWCA in bringing back the hope of life to one more of these girls.

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