Rwanda’s First All-Female University Is Training Up The Next Generation Of Women Leaders

Rwanda is a country of startling opposites. On one hand, it is the global leader in terms of percentage of women in government – 64%. On the other, the idea of women in positions of leadership is still seen as a taboo. In 1994, after the 100-day civil war which saw up to 1 million people being slaughtered by opposing tribal groups, the country was left in disarray. It was mostly women who were left behind to rebuild the country, and while they were previously not generally seen in public roles or working outside the home, the war became Rwanda’s “Rosie the Riveter” moment in history, as described by NPR, in that women had to go to work in order for society to function again.

It was also president Paul Kagame who became instrumental in championing the rights of women across the country. A new constitution was written in 2003 which mandated 30% of government positions be filled by women. A couple of elections later, Rwanda is now seeing a majority female federal government, something we can only dream of here in the United States!

However, the disconnect within social and cultural attitudes toward women still remains. Mireille Umutoni told NPR in 2016 that in high school feminism, and women in leadership roles, was considered a dirty word. When she questioned why girls couldn’t be the head of a club, the teachers would say things like “That’s for Americans. You’re trying to be an American.”

Something which feminists the world over battle, Mireille explained that a woman wanting to be a leader was considered “aggressive” or “too liberated”. Yet she ended up attending a university that encourages women in all sorts of roles. The Akilah Institute is Rwanda’s first all-female university, launched in 2008 by an American woman named Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes.

Elizabeth moved to Rwanda in 2006 after graduating from Vanderbilt University with the aim to help out somehow. After learning the daily struggles of women in terms of getting jobs and supporting their family, she knew education would be a good start, and launched the school in 2010.

Before Akilah was opened, Elizabeth spent 2 years volunteering with street children and getting to know female survivors of the genocide which is where she learned education was a major factor in preventing women from better employment prospects.

“I decided to start the Akilah Institute to prepare young women for leadership roles and professional careers within the fastest growing sectors of the East African economy. Akilah students select to major in Entrepreneurship, Information Systems or Hospitality Management, and most of our students are the first in their family to attend higher education. Our mission was to create an academic institution that would provide a bridge from education to meaningful employment and to empower young women from low-income communities to launch professional careers and support their families,” she told MSNBC in 2015.

From having few computers or textbooks when they opened, Akilah has evolved into an institution that works closely with local business, government and community leaders to create a system of education that effectively prepares students for regional careers. Since opening, Akilah did expand into neighboring Burundi (but was forced to close its campus there in 2015 due to political instability) and plans to open even more locations in East Africa. They also have a vision to serve 1 million students by 2030.

The accredited school offers diplomas in Entrepreneurship and Business Management, Information Systems, and Hospitality Management which are also among the fastest growing sectors in East Africa. And the graduates are proving the necessity and value of women in the marketplace with these skills.

Seventy-eight percent of Akilah students are the first women in their families to attend college. Nearly ninety percent of alumnae find jobs within six months of graduation, where they earn incomes that are 12 times more than the national median income. Nearly 500 women have graduated from Akilah, and this year the institute welcomes 400 new students, its largest intake to date.

Elizabeth emphasizes a well-known fact about educated women being key to alleviating poverty in their families and communities.

“Women on average will invest 90% of their income into their families, as opposed to 30-40% for men. Educated women are less likely to contract HIV, and will also earn more money and have fewer and healthier children,” she said.

As a PBS feature on the school recently pointed out, the progressive, pro-women policies from President Kagame is certainly having an impact.

“In the 23 years since the genocide, Rwanda has been a world leader in bringing down infant mortality, maternal mortality. Life expectancy has climbed from 48 to 58,” said correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro.

For some girls who enroll in Akilah, it is the first time they are learning about feminism and gender equality, which means they have the potential to change the status quo in their lives and those around them from what they learn. As Aline Kabanda, the school’s director, says, these girls are being given an opportunity to be change-makers in their country.

“We’re looking at the next generation of female leaders, and then we’re telling them, you have a role to play as a leader of yourself, as a leader of your family, as a leader of your community. And that will trickle down to the whole country,” she told PBS.

With 60 employment partners in East Africa, and generous donations from organizations like the Clinton Global Foundation, Akilah graduates have gone on to work for financial institutions, telecom companies, fashion brands, eco tourism companies, the United Nations, and more. This one-of-a-kind university could certainly be credited as a key component in making gender equality a reality in all aspects of Rwandan life, not just in the government.

“Our students undergo a visible transformation during their three years on campus. Many enter as timid, uncertain young women from rural Rwanda and Burundi. But during their time at Akilah, their knowledge and self-esteem grow, and they graduate as determined, empowered, confident professionals,” said Elizabeth.

To learn more about the school, visit the Akilah Institute website.


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