RWANDA: Defying History
Today, Rwanda boasts more women in Parliament than any other nation—56%—a huge increase from a below 17% pre-genocide figure. It’s transitional post-genocide government took steps to support women’s participation in decision-making, establishing “women’s councils” and “women-only” elections, as well as a triple balloting system to ensure women occupied a set percentage of seats at the district and local level. It also established a Ministry for Gender and Women in Development, and gender posts at all levels of government and ministries. Today, a national gender framework and gender budgeting are being implemented in line with Rwanda’s Millennium Development Goals and Vision 2020—a national blueprint for growth. Other victories include critical legal reforms related to sexual violence, marital rape, labor rights, property and inheritance, education, and family law.
“We have been able to put equality into the law and our Constitution, at all levels, so that now we have the protections for women,” said Dr. Binagwaho. “If a lot has been achieved, a lot remains to be done at the local level for women to use all the opportunities offered by the legal framework.”
In February, Minister of Gender and Family Promotion Jeanne d’ Arc Mujawamariya welcomed members of the National Women’s Council of Kigali City to review women’s progress since 2004—the 10-year anniversary of the genocide. More women were accessing communal health insurance, microcredit schemes, and income-generation programs, adopting family planning methods, and keeping their children in school—especially girls. “You are heroes because where Rwanda has reached as far as development is concerned, you have been at the helm of it,” MP Yvonne Uwayiseng said, hailing Rwanda’s women.
Global Model—or Exception?
Globally, Rwanda clearly presents a strong case study of the national benefits of empowering women, one others hope to copy. But its unique history also factors heavily into its success—and so does timing. Without the massive tragedy of genocide, which reset the national clock to zero and forced women into new roles and power, would Rwanda have achieved very much for women? After all, the death of so many husbands and sons created the void. More importantly, without women’s vision and influence at all levels, would Rwanda have embraced innovation and reform as it has? Externally, the adoption of international gender reforms like the Convention of the Rights of Women (CEDAW) and later, Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, also influenced Rwanda’s national policies.
“It’s one of the only positive things we can take from what happened,” said Henriette Byabagamba, a trauma counselor running youth programs for the local Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment Initiative, about the unexpected silver lining of women’s empowerment that resulted from tragedy. But she’s quick to add, “It doesn’t change anything about what we lost. That can never be replaced.”
Extending the Gains
It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s still another to give it muscle. “Up to now, we haven’t been able to engage rural women as much as we want to,” stated Liberate Uwimana, head of Solidarité, one of the many nonprofit groups women set up after the genocide. “That’s still a big piece of work to do. But I do see change, and it is encouraging. The women are mobilizing even in the villages.”
Rural women—and men—make up 86% of the population in this mainly agricultural land. Many are very poor, illiterate farmers who lag behind in the new Rwanda. Away from Kigali’s sparkling skyscrapers, after a dawn spent farming small plots, they sit inside dim village huts, shelling peas or walking long distances over paths to get clean water. The country is decentralizing, giving more resources to the towns and villages, to local leaders. But the real money and power remains highly centralized in Kigali. Many rural women remain unschooled, and, as much as they want to keep their daughters in school, they worry they won’t be able to attend beyond elementary classes. In the villages, health services are still limited, and all the diseases of poverty are found there: malaria, tuberculosis, water-borne diseases—and HIV/AIDS.
“We still have a lot of problems in Rwanda—no one is denying that,” said Assumpta Umurungi, Executive Secretary of AVEGA-Agahozo, one of the first post-genocide widow’s self-help networks. It has chapters in the countryside and over 25,000 members. “Life continues to be very difficult for many members, even though we have been able to help them with psychosocial support and medical care, housing, and income generation programs. Women also help one another. But we still don’t have the housing, and they need work. They need food. Many of them are affected by HIV since the genocide.” . . .