Swedish teens help educate and empower female refugees in Rwanda

News Stories, 26 March 2008

© Enna Gerin
Nadia Chakir sits in on a sewing class in Gihemba camp. Photo courtesy of and

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, March 26 (UNHCR) Some US$900,000 raised by Swedish teenagers is giving young female refugees in Rwanda the chance to become more independent and to lead productive lives.

Two young Swedish women, Nadia Chakir and Enna Gerin, recently visited Gihembe camp to see how the UNHCR-run education project was being implemented with the funds raised during the annual "Operation a Day's Work" campaign by 80,000 students in 250 high schools across Sweden.

Chakir and Gerin work for the Swedish Student Organization, which stages the day's work campaign to fund an educational project in a developing country. This year's project in Gihembe and three other Rwandan camps is being implemented by UNHCR partner FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists).

"This has to be the best follow-up visit ever for our organization," Gerin enthused on her return to Stockholm. "Everything was smooth sailing and effective; everybody was so deep into the project and committed to it."

The young women saw how the Swedish funds were being used to pay for the primary and secondary school fees, books and uniforms of 3,500 girls in Gihembe, Kiziba, Nyabiheke and Kigeme camps. The project also helps more than 500 school drop-outs some of them young mothers by teaching them how to read and write and providing classes in skills such as knitting, tailoring, hairdressing, cookery and handicrafts.

FAWE has established Tuseme (Speak Out) clubs in the camps, where teachers, students both male and female gather to identify and dismantle barriers to female education. These clubs help empower the girls and sensitize others to the importance of education for all.

Odette Mukazi Mutanguha, FAWE's Rwanda coordinator, is passionate about gender issues and women's rights. She repeatedly told her visitors about the inequalities faced by women in this part of Africa and said that they faced a much brighter future with a solid education behind them.

Annette Rita Nyekan, UNHCR's representative in Rwanda, agreed. "The importance of schooling for these youngsters cannot be overemphasized. While children and young people are confined to the camp, the school gives their life meaning. Education also prepares them for life after camp," she said.

Chakir and Gerin said the secondary school classroom at Gihembe was full of young mothers poring over their new maths textbooks when they visited. The young Swedes had earlier sat in on classes in cookery, hairdressing and sewing.

"It is important for us to learn so we become more independent and capable of taking care of our families. With the new textbooks, we will be able to do homework and soon even teach our kids," they quoted student Nyirakadamagye Avioinsiatz as telling them.

Mutanguha said the biggest challenge facing the FAWE project was to minimize the number of school drop-outs, "often leading to pregnancies and, in the worst case, prostitution." She added that the youth education and vocational training programmes gave young mothers another chance.

Gerin was impressed by how FAWE were using the Swedish funds. "FAWE is the absolute best partner for this project. They work effectively and do everything within their power to get the most out of every coin collected," she said.

Chakir, meanwhile, noted progress from when she first visited the camp in 2005 to collect data for the fund-raising campaign in Sweden. "When I was here last, most girls were so shy and timid, but it is noticeable how they quietly but surely are carving out more space for themselves to express their views," she said.

"This project helps to reopen their world. It is great, but also heart-breaking, to see the difference this can make to their lives. It is a big responsibility," she concluded.

By Anna Leer in Stockholm, Sweden