In Rwanda, a husband could end up in jail if his wife was not there to greet him if he returned home, a Rwandan teacher explained to UCLA faculty at a conference last year.

Rwandan women in the room filled in the rest of of story – the wives were later beaten.

At a UCLA workshop at the University of Rwanda’s College of Education, Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, spoke about how dialogues like this one explain Rwandan society’s traditional expectations for women.

For 10 days in November, a group of UCLA experts in gender equity and African culture traveled to the University of Rwanda in Kigali to launch a partnership with the University of Rwanda and hold workshops about how to rectify educational gender inequities in the country. Last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded UCLA $1 million for the partnership, which is managed by Higher Education for Development, a federal program that invests in international development.

She said the discussion that followed was passionate and informed dialogue that was exemplary of the complicated cultural attitudes of male dominance and primacy present in Rwandan society.

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(Courtesy of Sanyu Mulira)

In rural areas, where girls are expected to help their families with domestic chores, a greater percentage leave school before finishing middle or high school, said Françoise Lionnet, director of the UCLA African Studies Center and member of the UCLA delegation.

Once women marry, they are expected to be at home for their husbands when they arrive home and are discouraged from taking evening classes, she said.

Patriarchy is not universal in the culture, but it is very prevalent, Lionnet added.

During the trip, a first-grade teacher used the story about the husband going to jail to explain how changing gender roles would threaten traditional men’s rights, McHugh said. Rwandan men commonly expect women to be home when her husband arrives, the teacher told McHugh.

The 1994 genocide is the largest civil conflict that has occurred since Rwanda became an independent nation in the 1960s. In the span of several months, about a million Rwandans were killed in a conflict involving the Hutu ethnic majority against the Tutsi minority.

Rwanda’s government has the highest proportion of female members of parliament in the world with about 63.8 percent in its lower house. After the 1994 genocide, government leaders looked to qualified women as a divergence from the traditional views that devastated their country, said Azeb Tadesse, deputy director of the African Studies Center. But most girls in the country will not graduate from secondary school, according to a UNICEF profile on basic education in Rwanda.

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(Courtesy of Sanyu Mulira)

Issues of gender inequality in the country have been eclipsed by issues of ethnic tension in a series of conflicts leading up to the 1994 genocide, said Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, a UCLA professor emeritus.

But the UCLA experts said while they were in Rwanda, they saw an interest in advancing the education of women.

To start the partnership, Rwandan officials described their needs, and the U.S. Agency for International Development accepted applications from a number of potential partners, Tadesse said. UCLA was chosen because of the extent of expertise it has to offer.

“We are not expecting the society to be transformed in the three years of this project,” Mitchell-Kernan said. “But certainly there are some important interventions that … are going to make a difference down the line.”

The UCLA women traveled to Rwanda and presented to primary school teachers, secondary school teachers and professors of education on how to change their approach to female students and be more supportive of women, McHugh said.

Previous trips were made in preparation for the launch of the joint project and to set feasible goals for the program, Mitchell-Kernan said.

“Our role is to provide them with partners like Kathleen here at UCLA who have the expertise to work with the local partners,” Tadesse said. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the University of Rwanda decided what they needed to accomplish in terms of gender equity in education, UCLA offered the expertise of its faculty, and they put together a tightly scripted program.

The UCLA Center for the Study of Women is also providing faculty expertise to the University of Rwanda to change the behavior of the professors at the University of Rwanda who are responsible for educating Rwandan teachers.

“Education is the way to transform culture and transform people’s ways of relating to one another across gender lines,” Lionnet said.

Women are often not represented in Rwandan textbooks, and if they are, they are depicted doing domestic work, she added. In all levels of education, there is a general assumption among many that women are not as entitled to education as men.

Lionnet said UCLA faculty are not trying to tell faculty in Rwanda exactly what to do, but to pass on experience in dealing with issues of gender inequity so they can implement equitable changes.

By sharing knowledge about how gender inequities in education have been overcome in the U.S. and Rwanda, McHugh said UCLA can help Rwandan educators push gender stereotypes out of their textbooks, curriculum and discourse.

McHugh, who held two workshops in Rwanda on gender inequity on this trip, said her audience members appeared passionate and earnest.

In both workshops, they discussed the dichotomy between the high level of mobility of women in the upper echelons of Rwandan society and the traditional patriarchal values imposed on many rural women.

I really have the sense that the people in that audience really understood what the issues were,” McHugh said.

McHugh used examples of behavioral and practical adjustments that led to the higher success for women at Harvard University and the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology in Rwanda.

She said at the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology, women were falling exceptionally behind in performance in the science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM, fields. But after intensively tutoring women whose scores were barely short of qualifying for the institute, the program was able to increase women’s success rates.

A group of student leaders of secondary school gender clubs in Rwanda said it was not the government or their families that held them back from an education, but themselves. Tadesse said the girls in Rwanda also told her they did not reach their full educational potential because they wanted to get married instead. Even for women whose families are not pressuring them to become homemakers, that image is imprinted by Rwandan culture.

The UCLA experts are planning another trip to Rwanda in May to consult the University of Rwanda on their future needs, Tadesse said. Currently, they are developing a curriculum to promote gender equity that they hope to offer Rwandan students in November. Staff members in Rwanda are currently being trained on how to create online reports about the state of gender inequity to send to UCLA on a regular basis.

Tadesse said the partnership has enough funding to last until 2015.

Email Torpey at atorpey@media.ucla.edu.