Recently, one of the debates that trended on social media in Rwanda was on the case of FAWE girls’ scholarship sparked by an article published in ‘Kigali Today’ on 3rd February highlighting that FAWE, a women’s rights NGO that champions girls education, plans to withdraw scholarships without prior notice to supported girls who get pregnant. There is evidence that indeed FAWE asks all girls they support to sign a commitment letter in which it is stipulated that the scholarship will be discontinued if a girl gets pregnant or married before finishing school. It sparked a hot debate among many people (myself included) with different positions.
There were mainly two opposing positions, where, on one side, some people defended that FAWE, as an independent entity, has all rights to provide scholarship with whichever conditions they desire and that this specific condition was an appropriate measure to prevent young people from having sex because they said this could lead to unwanted pregnancies and difficulty in completing school. On the other side, others argued that it was unnecessary and potentially more damaging to cut funding from vulnerable girls on basis of pregnancy, which is also forbidden under article 9 of the law punishing gender-based violence. I took lead with this second argument.
This debate left me thinking about the many aspects to this issue and surprised at how there was no common position on something I assumed most would find problematic. Here I share further my analysis and opinion on three aspects of this issue.
Problematic framing of and interventions on unwanted pregnancies
Lets face it, sexuality remains a taboo topic in Rwanda. Despite data that shows young people are sexually active as early as 14 years, we are still a society that wants to keep issues of sexuality among adult married people. A result of this is the lack of accurate information among young people on issues of sexuality and premarital sex and pregnancies being highly stigmatized. Women/girls are often the ones blamed for an unwanted pregnancy. Which is more likely why FAWE, some organisations supporting girls education and some schools (that conduct pregnancy tests), find it reasonable to target the girls and not the system as a whole.
I am a firm believer that Knowledge is power and that it is information on sexuality and accessing services that can ensure women and girls make informed decisions to more likely avoid unwanted pregnancies. We have to acknowledge that still, with accurate information and services, unwanted pregnancies can still happen due to many reasons. These can include lack of 100% protection from contraceptives, but also that because men and boys are not equally sensitized and held accountable to ensure that they do not only respect women’s consent but are also fully involved in preventing unwanted pregnancies. I also know that framing pregnancies among young women as always problematic leads to dis-empowering women’s agency and autonomy over their own bodies.
Understanding this can make us fully realize how it is wrong and further damaging to punish a girl and worse one who is already vulnerable, for an unwanted pregnancy as this can only lead to further structural inequalities and deprivation of a life of dignity.
Inter-generational differences in values and approaches
During the debate, it became clear that many older people strongly believed that the only way to get young people to obey, is through threatening and punishing. This was evidenced by statements like “ It's not a big deal..this serves to make the girls fear and be responsible”. This is how most older generations were brought up and whether it worked or not, it seems from the tone of much of this debate, still believe in applying the same approach today. It is the same principle used by FAWE threatening to cut funding from the supported girls if they get pregnant. I was also brought up the same way but I have grown to learn of positive parenting approaches and that you are more likely to get people to do what you want by making them your friends, understanding them, empowering them with knowledge, and supporting them no matter what. Most people, and institutions, are yet to understand, accept and adopt this approach.
The potential harm of the results-oriented frameworks
Those familiar with NGO work, may have heard of the term ‘Results-based framework’. It sounds reasonable, because, who wants to do work without results? It is indeed good to work towards results. However, this donor driven framework can be damaging if not well contextualized. In NGOs world, we are becoming increasingly obsessed with ticking the boxes, achieving our set targets and indicators and ensuring we have success stories. However, while doing this, we often don’t think twice about analysing and contextualizing strategies used and how that can lead to transformative change in people’s lives and systems as a whole. Like other NGOs, for FAWE to champion girls education needs with the constraints of donor results frameworks, they need to be able to prove that their work leads to positive results; and girls dropping out due to unwanted pregnancies definitely doesn't look good in a report. We need to challenge ourselves and our donors and ensure that we don’t only aim at achieving targets but can also ensure doing no harm or contributing to perpetuating further inequalities and injustices.