Belise stands in a circle of teenaged girls from her school. She's leading an activity where they practice standing up to pressure from boys and men who want sex. One girl calls out a scenario from a prepared list, and another acts out a response they can give. The activity is a fun, safe, and supportive way girls can practice rejecting the pressures the face in their everyday lives.

Belise is an activist for girls’ rights in her school. The afterschool club where this activity is happening is just one of the initiatives that she’s leading. The past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic have seen an explosion in transactional sex, sexual assault, and forced marriages across sub-Saharan Africa. Pregnancy has become the leading cause of teenaged girls not returning to school post-COVID-19.

Belise, 21, was nearly one of those girls. She became pregnant while still finishing school. Social stigma made her feel unwelcome and ashamed at school. So, she dropped out. It took a lot of courage and special support for Belise to stand up to social pressure and claim her right to an education.

After Belise gave birth, she stopped going to school. But with the right help, she was able to return. Now she pays it forward by helping other young mothers to return like she did.

“I did not want them to know about my situation.”

When Belise became pregnant, her immediate concern was that her parents and peers would judge her. She stayed home during her pregnancy, ashamed to go out and see her friends. Even after she gave birth, she still felt uncomfortable going out for fear of being judged by others.

"It was not easy for my parents to accept what had happened. I started seeing myself as a problem to them. I started being afraid of going out because I was worried that I would run into people I was hoping to avoid. I did not want them to know about my situation,” says Belise.

“I was hopeless, I felt worthless, I no longer liked school.”

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Belise is one of 81 young women in her district who have become pregnant recently. There's been a spike in unintentional pregnancy rates amongst teenage girls across sub-Saharan Africa since the start of the pandemic.

"She used to enjoy school so much.”

Belise’s mother, Petronile, was a member of the school’s executive committee. She was initially shocked by her daughter’s pregnancy. As she processed the news, she thought about the training she and other committee members had received on how to improve communication between parents and children. The Right To Play-led training had also sensitized parents to the issues young girls were facing in their community.

“I could not cross my arms and let my daughter stay with me at home because that would worsen the situation for her,” says Petronile. “So I tried to talk her into going back to school because she used to enjoy school so much."

After a few months of her mother’s encouragement, Belise decided to go back to school.

While schools in Rwanda are legally required to accommodate young mothers, in practice the social stigmas and lack of childcare support means that many are discouraged from returning. Petronile knew this, and helped look after Belise’s child while she was in class each day. It was the key to Belise being able to go back to learning.

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Schools in Rwanda are required to allow new mothers like Belise to keep attending, but the law is rarely enforced. Social pressure and a lack of childcare end up forcing many out.

“I strive to help my fellow girls.”

After returning to school, Belise realized that even though she had made it back, there were many other girls in her community who were struggling. She decided that to help them. She spoke to school officials and asked them to actively encourage young women who’d had children to return to school. She successfully advocated with her school to create a private space for young mothers to breastfeed their children, change their diapers, and comfort them when they were crying. She also persuaded teachers to encourage mothers to use the facilities. These simple changes eliminated several barriers that young mothers were facing.

“I strive to help my fellow girls who have faced the same problem to return to school. I have learnt how to be resilient and to help others in need,” says Belise.

Belise also joined her school’s afterschool leadership club and started running activities to support girls to assert control over their bodies and their futures, like the game where they practice standing up to pressure to have sex. The activities help them practice expressing their values, to understand their rights, and know how to seek support from other girls and child protection agencies in the community.

Belise now works as a mentor for young mothers in the community, providing them with the emotional support to stand up to stigma and resist feeling ashamed. She encourages them to get back into school.

Mediatrice, one of Belise’s friends, also faced the challenges of being a new mother.

“I thought it was the end of my education. But afterwards, there came my friend Belise,” Mediatrice says. “She told me that there was still a chance and that I could go back to school.”

Mediatrice credits Belise’s support for helping her get back to class. “She was my counselor. She took care of me and became a good friend of mine. She had my back in everything, both with my studies and taking care of my baby. She would visit me at home, encourage me, and tell me that everything is normal and it’s not the end of the world.”

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Belise’s work has made her school more supportive for young mothers like Mediatrice. Belise’s work to make her school more supportive of young mothers has helped them to balance the demands of school and childcare.

“I started having hope again.”

Belise's activism for other girls has helped her deal with the challenges of being a new mother and a returning student.

“When I see one of my friends coming back to school, it makes me so happy. It encourages me to approach even more of them and tell them that having challenges should not make them depressed, that they can come back and still have a bright future.”

“The reason why this activity is so important to me is that it has helped with challenges in my own life. Helped me not to be depressed. Helped me to freely interact with others. Because of coming together with others, I started having hope again. Hope that I can start over and start building my future.”

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Belise is a proud member of her school’s leadership club, where she helps new mothers and other students who have dropped out to return to school.