Traditionally, there was no use for reading among the Batwa, the indigenous people of Rwanda, also known as “Pygmies” and “Historically Marginalized People.” In the forest, which was their home for millennia, there was nothing to read:  no books, no paper, no electronics. Also, no formal schools or written tests. The elders never learned to read, and many thought reading was useless for feeding hungry mouths.

When the city grew closer and roads came to the forest, things changed. It was the roads that began to cause problems. Without following it all the way to its end, no one had a clue where the roads went. That was a very long walk, and although adults could do that, it was too far for the children to go. They would go off into the forest, come across a road and then get lost. One day, someone noticed flat surfaces with markings on them posted by the roadside…road signs. It turned out that if one understood road signs, it was easier to not get lost. We are told that that was the first time Batwa people realized that teaching their kids to read might be a good thing.

However, learning how to read meant going to school, and that was not simple. Schools were far away. It took a lot of energy to walk there. Since there was no food except at midday, when a fire could be made and water boiled for cooking, going to school meant there was nothing for students to eat but a few beans at the end of the day. There were other barriers too. For example, most children had no shoes and without shoes they were not admitted into class. Also, they had no clothes, yet students needed school uniforms. Plus, there were fees for tuition, paper and pencils and there was no money for any of that, so for a long time, most of the children in the village of Bwiza could never go to school.

In 2015, Pygmy Survival Alliance was asked to help the Batwa people create a new future by helping all their children attend school. We never dreamed that doing so would raise the status of women in society. But it did.  Batwa women in Rwanda have long been regarded by other Rwandans as social outcasts. They are routinely considered non-human. There is even a commonly used insult in the Kinyarwanda language that translates as, “you look like a Batwa woman.” Yet, when Batwa women get the chance to learn and develop, they catapult their status in the eyes of society beyond what most people ever thought possible.

The trick is that it doesn’t always take a classroom for this kind of educational advancement to occur.  Yes, classrooms do work best in early childhood—ages five and under. Pygmy Survival Alliance operates an amazingly successful early childhood education school for Batwa people—the Irerero Nursery School—that now serves 171 students in four classrooms and feeds over 200 children with eggs and porridge to combat protein malnutrition. That school is producing fantastic results by establishing healthy learning patterns and brain growth during early years of development. The graduates have a head start on their peers in learning language and math. They have a beginning comprehension of English and most importantly, they know how to present themselves to others and so earn the respect of people not from their village. They have become the top students in the local Primary school, something that has never been possible there before for any Batwa children. And many of them are girls who thus have already succeeded at outgrowing the stigma of being born female in a historically marginalized community.

But what about the girls who have already dropped out of further education because of the incredible challenges they confront?

Read the full article about raising women’s status in society by Dr. Karl Weyrauch at Global Washinton.