Q&A: 2009 Honoree Jessica Markowitz on Rwanda and Girls Education

jessica markowitz
Jessica reads to some of the children in her program, Richard’s Rwanda=IMPUHWE.

On Sunday, April 6, our Co-Founders, Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz, will visit 2009 Honoree Jessica Markowitz in Nyamata, Rwanda to see the benefits World of Children funding has had on the girls who live there.

In 2009, we honored Jessica with the World of Children Youth Award for supporting the educational opportunities of 40 girls in Rwanda through her program, Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE. Along with the Award, we gave her $15,000 in grant funding to support girls living in the Bugesera District of Rwanda, paying for their school fees, school supplies, insurance and school uniforms.

In preparation for Harry and Kay’s visit, Jessica took a moment to reflect on her time in Rwanda and tell us about her plans for the future.

What do you think is the number one challenge that girls in Rwanda face today?
We know that more than 600 million girls live in the developing world and almost one quarter are not in school. More girls are out of primary school than boys. Breaking down gender inequality and violence prevention is important and even more reason why it’s critical to educate girls. Girls have traditionally struggled in society even more than boys and historically been denied educational opportunities. In Rwanda, the country where I’m connected with since I was eleven years old, children head more than 100,000 Rwandan households; often it’s the girl’s responsibility to take care of their family.

Jessica Markowitz teaching class
Jessica Markowitz teaches a class in Nyamata

Girls take this tremendous responsibility with no education, few skills and are isolated with no support network, especially in rural areas. They are much more likely to drop out of school even in the best of times; barely half of those who enroll in primary school complete their education. Without a proper education they have no concept of how to better their own situation. It is a vicious cycle of poverty and need, one that is extremely difficult to break but starts with educating a girl.

What was it like to travel to Rwanda for the first time?
Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE has expanded exponentially by opening chapters in several Seattle schools in addition to chapters on the east coast and in Rwanda as well! So far, we sponsor 40 girls in rural Rwanda, providing school uniforms, supplies, health insurance and covering school fees. The heart of the organization’s success is due to the engagement of the girls on a much more personal level. I’m inspired by the girls in Rwanda and their incredible strength to work hard and become leaders in their community despite the many difficulties they face on a daily basis.

Jessica Markowitz teaching in Nyamata
Jessica teaches a class to students in Nyamata

I met the girls when I was twelve years old and I’ve watched them become leaders in their own right. On my first trip to Rwanda I visited the Forum of African Women Educationalist Girls School and developed a friendship with a few students at the school. One student in particular had lost family during the genocide and asked if I could be her sister. When I returned to Rwanda the following year my new sister had a surprise waiting for me. She had decided it was important for Rwandan city girls to reach out to the rural girls less fortunate and she started a chapter of my organization in her school. I was overwhelmed with joy because the FAWE students gave me their pocket money and have now committed to volunteer for my organization for a lifetime. They told me if an American could do it, then so can we! The school has subsequently adopted my program as a community service mentoring project and over 80 FAWE students have signed up to participate. No chapter of IMPUHWE is more noteworthy than that of the Forum of African Women Educationalist Girls School (FAWE).

We additionally established a new partnership with the Maranyundo Girls School to also help mentor the Nyamata girls. The program has officially been incorporated as part of a community service program for both schools with over 100 Rwandan mentors volunteering. The FAWE mentors recently led a “make your own sanitary napkin” seminar.

Could you share one moment that has stuck with you?
When I taught a women’s empowerment class asking the girls to declare, “I am powerful, strong, and a leader.” Many of the girls were hesitant but now each girl proudly tells me they are “powerful, strong and a leader.” I asked them to take turns standing on a table to do a presentation and it was so moving to see them stand on their own and raise their voices! They have not stopped ever since that day we spent together in Nyamata.

jessica markowitz
Jessica dances with students during a trip to Rwanda.

Where do you see Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE going in the next 10 years?
We are proud to announce Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE has merged with Seattle Girls School where I founded the organization. This will allow 5th-8th grade girls to continue bonding with girls in Rwanda and allowing them to build stronger cross-cultural connections. Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE will be the signature global program for Seattle Girls School and I’m honored and very excited. The service learning trips will continue and the legacy of Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE will stay alive and well for years to come for young girls to be part of an empowering girls movement.

Do you have any advice for other young people who want to start a nonprofit?
To find their passion and not give up! It’s challenging to carry on supporting a cause but it’s the most rewarding and transformative experience. Whatever is going to keep you motivated long-term is critical. When you make meaningful service a part of your life you will never want to stop!

Read more about our Co-Founders’ trip to Rwanda by visiting worldofchildren.org/rwanda. Support the work of heroes like Jessica by clicking here. 100% of your donation directly supports and advances the work of our Honorees.

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