A new frontier for women's education in Africa

  • Students arrive for a celebration of Rwandan Liberation Day on July 4 commemorating the end of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, and the birth of a new era for the country. Festivities took place on the grounds of the Kamabuye Secondary School in Mayange, Rwanda. They included a parade of school kids, speeches, a comedic play and ended with the village crowding around a television to watch President Kagame address the nation. 
  • Classmates Alice and Chantal joke with each other as they wait their turn to head towards the Rwandan Liberation Day celebrations on July 4, 2014 in Mayange, Rwanda. The national holiday is a time where Rwandans commemorate the end of the 1994 genocide where an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people were slaughtered. 
  • Theoneste Hagenimana, 30 years old,  teaching his Saturday morning chemistry class at G.S. Kamabuye in Mayange in the Bugesera district of Rwanda, about 40 km south of the capital Kigali on July 5, 2014.  Mayange is one of several so-called Millennium Villages in Africa designed to demonstrate how the Millennium Development Goals can be met in rural Africa. 
  • Alice Ingabire, Chantal Iradukunda and Marguoritte Dusabimana (in green) sit in on teacher Theoneste Hagenimana’s Saturday morning chemistry class at G.S. Kamabuye in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014.
  • Teacher Theoneste Hagenimana during Saturday morning Chemistry class with students Chantal and Alice in the foreground at G.S. Kamabuye in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014.
  • Students Alice Ingabire and Chantal Iradukunda during computer class at G.S. Kamabuye in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014.
  • 17 year old Marguoritte Dusabimana (in green) and a friend share a moment between Saturday classes at G.S. Kamabuye School in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014. While attendance for girls in Rwanda is 88.5% at the primary level, it drops to just 15.6% at the secondary level.
  • Teachers take a break outside the staff room of G.S. Kamabuye school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014. Mayange has several umudugudus, or settlements closely spaced dwellings, which the Rwandan government built to house returnees after the 1994 genocide. 
  • Reproductive anatomy and physiology posters hang in the school library at G.S. Kamabuye in Mayange, where students are exposed to information about how the body works at a young age. 
  • Kids play in front of one of the many educational murals painted on the walls of Mayange B Primary School in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3rd, 2014.
  • Boys hang out after school on the soccer field at Mayange B primary school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014.
  • Best friends Chantal Iradukunda and Alice Ingabire pose for a photo after church at the Aeer Anglican Association Church in Mayange, Rwanda on July 6, 2014.
  • 11-13 year-olds in a classroom at the G.S. Kamabuye school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014.
  • 11-13 year olds in class at the G.S. Kamabuye school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014. When Mayange Millennium Villages Project was started, nearly one in five children died before the age of five and primary schools were overcrowded, with classes as big as 80 children.
  • Two girls working on the chalkboard at G.S. Kamabuye school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014.
  • A boy plays with a soccer ball in Mbyo, Rwanda on July 6, 2014.
  • Kids play volleyball after school at the Mayange B primary school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 3, 2014.
  • 17 year-old Marguoritte Dusabimana lives in one of the poorer areas of Mayange. Her entire neighborhood is without electricity. Here she poses just after sunrise after collecting water for her mother on July 5, 2014.
  • Marguoritte Dusabimana  (17) and her mother Uwizeyana Joseph (51) live in one of the poorer areas of Mayange, July 4, 2014. Their house is made of mud brick and has no electricity.
  • Marguoritte Dusabimana sweeps the property of her home in the early morning hours during one of her many chores before and after school in Mayange, Rwanda on July 4, 2014.
  • Marguoritte Dusabimana sits on her bed in her mud brick home in Mayange, Rwanda on July 4, 2014.
  • Marguoritte Dusabimana studying at night. As she lives in one of the poorer areas of Mayange that does not have electricity, she makes due with a headlamp to finish her homework at night on July 4, 2014.
  • Marguoritte Dusabimana’s mother Uwizeyana Joseph standing outside of her mud brick house in Mayange, Rwanda on July 4, 2014. Uwizeyana studied until the age of 10 but had to leave to tend to the family’s cows. Girls were given that task because it wasn’t thought necessary to educate them. Married at 23, Uwizeyana has four children that are all still alive. In 2000, her husband died in jail while awaiting trial for crimes perpetrated during the genocide. 
  • Kids play after school at the Mayange B primary school on July 3, 2014.
  • Colette Mukarubuga (52 years-old) with her daughter Chantal Iradukunda (15 years old) and her father Emmanuel Rwamanywa (55 years old) pose for a picture against the cement wall of their home in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014. Neither parent attended secondary school. The mother wants Chantal to be a journalist. The father dreams of her being a doctor. They have been married since 1986. They were very poor before being sponsored by the Millennium Villages Project. Emmanuel has since sold a plot of land and bought this house as well as a street-facing shop where they plan to sell sorghum beer. Chantal’s brother dropped out of school to attend vocational school to learn how to be an auto mechanic. 
  • Chantal Iradukunda (15 years old) and best friend Alice Ingabire (16 years old) take a break in the woods after collecting firewood in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014. They are both students at the G.S. Kamabuye school.
  • Chantal doing her schoolwork by electric light in her living room in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014.
  • Posters of pop stars hang on the wall of Chantal’s bedroom in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014.
  • Chantal and Alice wait for lunch at Alice’s house after completing chores. Her parents feed the girls heaping bowls of beans and cassava root after a long walk to the water pumps in Mayange, Rwanda on July 5, 2014.

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Based on current education trends, only 56% of countries will have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education by 2015. And if we continue business as usual, the poorest girls in sub-Saharan Africa will not even achieve universal primary school completion until 2086.

To address this challenge, the Connect To Learn (CTL) initiative was established in 2010. A partnership of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Millennium Promise (a non-governmental organization, or NGO), and leading telecommunications company, Ericsson, CTL aims to scale up access to quality secondary education, especially for girls in rural Africa, by providing scholarships and Internet access.

In Rwanda, the scholarship program in the Millennium Village of Mayange, launched in January 2012, enrolled 44 girls. Not one girl has dropped out since, and among the 745 girls on Connect To Learn scholarships across Africa, the retention rate is 96.2%. President Kagame of Rwanda is a global champion of universal access to education. As co-chair of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Millennium Development Goals advocacy group and co-chair of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission, President Kagame advocates for gender equity and access to broadband. Education is a national priority in Rwanda. Since 2012, 12 years of basic education are free, a rare accomplishment in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this progress, even in Rwanda attitudes toward the importance of girls’ education, early marriage, distance to school, and household responsibilities still keep many girls from attending secondary education.

While net attendance for girls in Rwanda is 88.5% at the primary level, it drops to just 15.6% at the secondary level. But this scenario is quickly changing. With access to Internet in rural schools, children in remote villages are seeing their communities magically appear on Google Earth and, for some of them, for the first time, they know where they are in the world, and can access quality education materials.

The international dialogue on education is shifting to focus on several of the challenges to education access and effectiveness that CTL addresses. For example, the proposed goal on education for the post-2015 development agenda talks about universal access to free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, and the new Goal on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls explicitly calls for the enhanced “use of enabling technologies, in particularly ICT (information and communications technology), to promote women’s empowerment.”

By making education more interactive and practical, technology has the potential to make a huge difference regarding the 250 million young people around the world who are unable to read, write, or do basic math, preparing them for jobs in an increasingly globalized world.

With 745 girls on scholarships in Africa, nearly 39,000 students benefiting from the CTL program globally, and collaborating with the education team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Ericsson, governments, and local partners in Africa and other parts of the developing world, CTL will continue building evidence for how supporting girls’ education leads to increased attendance and retention year-over-year, and how integration of ICT can contribute to higher learning outcomes for girls and boys so that more students can, as one scholar in Rwanda says “acquire knowledge and become good citizens.”

Joanna Rubinstein is the Director of Connect To Learn. To learn more about Connect To Learn visit www.connecttolearn.org or on Facebook and Twitter

Thomas Prior is a photographer based in New York. You can see more of his work at www.thomasprior.com

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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