How Noelline Took Her Future Into Her Own Hands

Noelline - Burundi - Hero Image

Parents, teachers, and children gather in a school field in Gisuru, Burundi.

They surround a shelter that has been transformed into a makeshift stage as costume-clad students assemble to perform a play.

One student dressed in an oversized jacket strides forward carrying a walking stick. He’s playing the role of a father who has decided to remove his daughter from school so she can help with chores. He’s joined by another student, playing the girl’s teacher, who advises the father to reconsider.

The performance is met with applause. But its purpose is larger than entertainment. The students are acting out a topic they learned about in school and want to share with the community: the value of girls’ education.

One of the performers, 14-year-old Noelline, is all-too familiar with the story. Not long ago, she faced her own uphill battle for education. With support from Right To Play, she took back her right to learn.

Faced with economic hardship, Noelline’s parents could no longer afford her school fees. But Noelline couldn’t let that stop her from claiming her right to an education.

FACING TOUGH CHOICES

When school fees were due last term, Noelline asked her parents for the money, like she usually would.

Their response surprised her.

“They refused to give it to me,” says Noelline. “I continued asking, but they said I should stay at home.” Noelline felt especially upset because her mother and father continued paying her brothers’ fees. “I don’t understand why they don’t want me to stay at school,” she says, stung by the memory of that day.

Like so many others, Noelline’s parents were forced into the difficult decision to keep their daughter home due to poverty.

The family had been navigating hardship for years. In 2018, when instability and violence resurfaced in Burundi, they fled to Tanzania. They returned to Burundi in 2021, a year that saw only 49% of returnee children enrolled in school. The cost of school supplies and enrollment fees is a major barrier.

Many parents with limited financial resources favour sending boys to school because they have greater future earning potential than girls.

But once they’re out of school, girls become more vulnerable to forced marriage. Dangerous consequences like early pregnancy, exploitation, and violence often follow.

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Attending school with her friends Ada and Cynthia was a vital part of Noelline’s life.

PLAYING THEIR ROLE FOR CHANGE

The fact that girls are more likely than boys to see their schooling come to a halt didn’t sit well with Ada and Cynthia, Noelline’s school friends. That’s what they’re trying to change as Junior Leaders in a Right To Play-organized Girls’ Club at school.

Girls’ Clubs bring young women together to better understand and promote a girl’s right to stay in school, resist early marriage, and take care of her body and future.

But rights are a big concept that can be difficult to communicate. So, Club members share important messages and challenge harmful gender norms in a creative, playful way – with drama.

On Fridays after school, Ada, Cynthia, and other Girls’ Club members meet with their teacher, Antoine, to develop their next skit. Skits focus on topics like reproductive health, developing self-esteem, and staying in school. The students establish roles and come up with lines to move the hearts and minds of children, parents, and community members they perform for.

While watching a play, audiences can safely explore new and sometimes controversial ideas. From the stage, performers develop the confidence to advocate for the rights they’re bringing to life.

“Before Right To Play, we were not able to express ourselves in front of many people,” says Cynthia. “But now, we can.”

SETTING THE STAGE FOR A RETURN TO SCHOOL

Skits put on by the Girls’ Club are part of a back-to-school campaign under the My Education, My Future program.

“Our job is to perform skits that convince parents to bring their children back to school,” says Ada. If that help is not available, we go door to door to check for children who have dropped out.”

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Songs and skits punctuated with humor are an effective way to challenge entrenched norms.

“Before Right To Play, we used to see children leaving their studies,” adds Ada. “But now, they are no longer dropping out.”

And some are coming back. 752 children were re-enrolled for the 2022 school year because of the campaign. And skits have helped parents question social attitudes that hold girls back; the percentage of parents who understand how to respond to barriers to girls’ education increased from 44% to 100%.

“I feel good if I see someone come back to school after the play we perform,” says Cynthia. “I know that it will create development for the student, their country, and their family.”


WON’T STOP HER

After dropping out of school, Noelline’s days were spent cooking, fetching water, and cleaning. By the time Cynthia and Ada came to talk to their friend, Noelline had grown frustrated and lonely.

“Ada and Cynthia advised me to come back to school,” explains Noelline. “Our conversation was about focusing on if you stay in school, you can be a doctor, or a teacher, or a headmaster. Those opportunities interested me. I said to myself, let’s go back for getting a better future.”

But Noelline’s family still didn’t have enough money for her school fees. Even that couldn’t stop her. She decided to earn the money herself.

Noelline spent a few Saturdays carrying water in exchange for a small fee. She saved every cent. “I collected the necessary money and I paid for myself,” says Noelline proudly. “That is how I came back to school.”

“Before Right To Play, we used to see children leaving their studies. But now, they are no longer dropping out.” - Ada, Junior Leader


REACHING WHERE SHE WANTS TO GO

For Noelline, a return to school was a return to joy. Her teacher Antoine was trained by Right To Play to introduce playful learning to his Grade 6 class.

“I have seen changes in the way the children are following the lesson,” he says. “Dropouts have reduced. The level of participation and results have increased.”

Educational songs and games motivated Noelline to catch up to her peers and dare to dream about her future.

“I want to be an expert in reading, mathematics, French, and English,” she says. “This will help me in my journey to becoming a teacher.”

“I said to myself, let’s go back for getting a better future.” – Noelline, 14

Noelline is proud to be back in class. But she knows that in a more equal world, parents would have enough money to send both their sons and daughters to school, and girls would face fewer barriers to education and opportunity.

She’s playing her role – literally – to make that world a reality. Noelline is now a Junior Leader in the Girls’ Club, helping children re-enroll and reclaim their right.

“When I’m performing skits, I feel happy as I see children coming back to school. I’m very excited because I know that it’s for their future.”

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Noelline is a Junior Leader in the Girls’ Club that inspired her. She performs skits that help parents understand the value of educating girls.

When she’s not performing, Noelline teaches girls how to make menstrual pads, so they can feel comfortable staying in school during their periods. And she encourages parents to be more responsive to challenges their daughters face. Champions like Noelline are the reason that 75% of girls in her grade now feel like they can make decisions about their education, up from 0 at the start of the program.

With friends like Ada and Cynthia, Noelline won’t lose hope again. “I’m convinced that what I’m learning in class and in the Club will help me reach where I want to go.”


My Education, My Future aims to improve access to and the quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis.

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