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How Ella and Joyce are Advocating for their Right to Education

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A community gathers in a school field in Burundi. There are banners flying in the air and energetic music plays loudly from the speaker at the base of the podium. When the event begins, parents and children take turns dancing and singing, watching skits, playing games, and listening to community leaders share their experiences about the topics of the day: gender equality and the importance of education.

This gathering is one of many that has been organized by more than 150 Right To Play-trained community coaches as part of a three-month-long back-to-school campaign held across the Gisuru commune in Burundi. The campaign engaged more than 12,400 parents, children, and community members with activities and messages that challenged social attitudes that discriminate against girls and bar them from claiming their right to education.

More than 45% of Burundi’s population is under the age of 14. Across the country, enrollment rates for children in pre-primary education are rising, but only 50% of children who begin school will complete their primary education. Even fewer, 22%, will successfully complete grade nine. Many children and adolescents, especially girls, are encouraged by their parents to drop out of school if their family is experiencing poverty. They are expected to find work and pay into the household, or to stay at home and complete chores while their parents are working. When a girl does not work and there is no need for her to do chores, child marriage is a common way to shift the costs of caring for her onto a husband.

More than 550 children who had dropped out of school were able to return to learning after the campaign. Ella and Joyce, both 15, are among them.

Claiming Her Right to an Education: Ella’s Story

Ella, 15, was out of school for more than two years before the back-to-school campaign helped her return.

Even though I had been out of school for two years, I still wanted to resume my studies because I had already completed Grade 5. As the school year was about to start, I asked my parents to buy school materials for me, but they refused. They told me that education for girls is useless, and that girls should focus instead on dealing with household chores.

I went to see a friend who had recently resumed classes and had become a youth leader in the Right To Play program. They advised me on how I could proceed and find a way to go back to school. We went together to meet a headmaster at the school, who referred me to the grade six teacher and told me to see if there were any places left in his class. The teacher confirmed that there was a space for me in his class, and I told him that I wanted to go back to school even if my parents were still reluctant to let me attend.

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Ella stands at the chalkboard, ready to copy down the responses her classmates share.

After we talked, the teacher advocated for me to be enrolled in his class and the headmaster accepted. But I did not have any money for school supplies. So the teacher gave me two copybooks and told me to come to school the following day. My friend also gave me two copybooks and a pen. The following day, I joined the classes for the first time. I was so excited.

When I came home after school, though, both my parents and siblings strongly intimidated me for going to school.

The next day, I went to tell both the headmaster and teacher that I had decided to give up going to school since my parents told me that the education of girls is useless. But the headmaster and teachers, together with community coaches from Right To Play and the local authority of the hill did not give up. They called my parents to come to school and spoke to them about the importance of girls’ education. After some time, they finally began to accept that girls’ education is important and agreed to let me go to school.”

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Ella, Joyce, and their classmates play a game of follow the leader.

Won't Take No for an Answer: Joyce's Story

Joyce, 15, was out of school for three years before the back-to-school campaign encouraged her to re-enroll in Grade 6. She too faced resistance from her family.

I was out of school for three years. My parents refused to let me go back to school, arguing that it is more important for girls to be busy with household chores. They would not buy school materials for me because they were sure that I would be discouraged from studying and decide to stay home.

I talked to a teacher who offered to not only provide me with the school materials I needed, but also to advocate for me to be accepted to a place in the Grade 6 class. With the teacher’s support, the headmaster accepted my request. The following day, I secretly went back to school and attended classes and I was very delighted to become a pupil once again.

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Joyce stands in front of her peers at the chalkboard.

When Joyce returned home, her parents were furious that she had disobeyed them. For several days, she dealt with harsh punishments. But she remained determined to return to the classroom.

One of Joyce’s friends invited her to bring her parents to a community meeting on gender equality, child protection and inclusion organized by Right To Play. Joyce’s father refused to go, but her mother agreed to attend – a decision that paved the way for Joyce to return to school.

Thanks to the content that was shared in that training, my mother agreed to let me keep on going to school and no longer punish me. We met community coaches, community leaders, junior leaders, and teachers who have come to our home to advocate for me and my right to be educated as a girl. Now I am glad to keep on attending my classes. My father is not investing in my education, but fortunately, my mother believes in it.”

The back-to-school campaign is an activity under My Education, My Future, a program that aims to improve access to and the quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. The program has been active in Tanzania and Burundi since 2020 and is made possible with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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