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Rwanda’s Women

June 9, 2008


As I noted in my last post [Moving Forward in Rwanda], the women of Rwanda have emerged a potent economic force over the past decade as Rwanda tries to emerge from the grasp of internecine warfare and poverty. Anthony Faiola, writing in the Washington Post, details how women are making an impact [“Women Rise in Rwanda’s Economic Revival,” 16 May 2008]. He writes:

“Sun-kissed plantations ring this village [Maraba, Rwanda], renowned in recent years for growing the rich arabica beans brewed and served in some of the world’s finest coffee houses. But the secret to success here has had far less to do with the idyllic climate and volcanic soil than with a group of people who have emerged as Maraba’s — and Rwanda’s — most potent economic force: women.”

Faiola notes that the violence that ripped the country apart in 1994 played a crucial role in the emergence of women.

“In the 14 years since the genocide, when 800,000 people died during three months of violence, this country has become perhaps the world’s leading example of how empowering women can fundamentally transform post-conflict economies and fight the cycle of poverty. That is particularly clear here in Maraba, a southern village where a host of women — largely relegated to backbreaking field work in the days before the genocide — found unwanted opportunity in the fertile lands they would inherit from slaughtered husbands, fathers and brothers.”

Like most traditional societies, Rwanda’s economy has been primarily male dominated and driven. With so many of the men gone, women had to step in but few had the training or experience to do so effectively. Fortunately, they received help from outside organizations. A little help was all they needed.

“As both female and male survivors sought to rebuild coffee plantations with financial and technical assistance from international organizations, Maraba’s women, most trying their hands at the business of farming for the first time, were by far the faster students. They showed more willingness than men, officials here said, to embrace new techniques aimed at improving quality and profit. Now, Maraba’s female farmers are outdoing their male counterparts in both, numbering about half of all farmers in the village’s coffee cooperative but producing 90 percent of its finest quality beans for export. The march of female entrepreneurialism, playing out here and across Rwanda in industries from agribusiness to tourism, has proved to be a windfall for efforts to rebuild the nation and fight poverty. Women more than men invest profits in the family, renovate homes, improve nutrition, increase savings rates and spend on children’s education, officials here said.”

These are exactly the derivative benefits that spurred Muhammad Yunus to loan money primarily to impoverished women when he started his Grameen Bank. Women are not only better financial risks they are more likely to invest for the future (be it in their businesses or in their families).

“It speaks to a seismic shift in gender economics in Rwanda’s post-genocide society, one that is altering the way younger generations of males view their mothers and sisters while offering a powerful lesson for other developing nations struggling to rebuild from the ashes of conflict. ‘Rwanda’s economy has risen up from the genocide and prospered greatly on the backs of our women,’ said Agnes Matilda Kalibata, minister of state in charge of agriculture. ‘Bringing women out of the home and fields has been essential to our rebuilding. In that process, Rwanda has changed forever. … We are becoming a nation that understands that there are huge financial benefits to equality.’ … The road to female prosperity runs through a path of male shame.”

Faiola reports that the scenarios that played themselves out in Bangladesh for Yunus are repeating themselves in Rwanda for other microlenders. He provides the example of Jeanine Mukandayisenga.

“The 29-year-old wife of a disabled army officer and mother of two took out a $50 microloan in 2005 with a plan to support her family. Her pitch: Few people in her neighborhood owned cellphones — so she would buy one and charge a few cents per call. She paid back the loan within a year. Last year, she took out a $400 loan to open a graining mill for cassava flour. Her businesses are earning the family a relatively princely sum of $650 a month. Officials at Vision Finance, the microloan arm of World Vision International that launched a program in 2005 in this town of 40,000, said that while women make up the majority of borrowers, four out of five defaulters are men.”

Women in Rwanda have demonstrated uncommon wisdom in how they invest their money. Faiola reports, however, that they are not alone. Women throughout much of the developing world appear to be better at making investment decisions. He also makes reference to Yunus’ experiences.

“Perhaps it should come as no surprise that women have been key in reconstructing Rwanda. In the effort to finance the reduction of poverty in the developing world, many leading experts said that women simply make better investments. The evidence has been building for years. In 1990, a major study on poverty in Brazil published in the Journal of Human Resources showed that the effect of money managed by women in poor households was 20 times more likely to be spent on improving conditions in the home than money managed by men. In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank founded by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus has focused its poverty-busting microloans on women, with success rates far higher for female than for male borrowers. Microloan programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America have shown similar results. In India’s great economic transformation of the past 15 years, states that have the highest percentage of women in the labor force have grown the fastest as well as had the largest reductions in poverty, according to the World Bank.

It would seem that in frontier economies, the frontier should be run by women! That is not often easy because the laws are stacked in favor of men and against women. Before women could play a major role in helping Rwanda recover, Rwanda’s legal system had to be reformed to provide women with protections they had not previously enjoyed.

“By 1999, reforms were passed enabling women to inherit property — something that would prove vitally important to female farmers. At the same time, woman began rising to higher ranks of political power. Today women hold about 48 percent of the seats in Rwanda’s parliament, the highest percentage in the world. They also account for 36 percent of President Paul Kagame’s cabinet, holding the top jobs in the ministries of commerce, agriculture, infrastructure, foreign affairs and information. Success in economics mirrored the rise of women in politics. Today, 41 percent of Rwandan businesses are owned by women — compared for instance with 18 percent in Congo. Rwanda has the second-highest ratio of female entrepreneurs in Africa, behind Ghana with 44 percent, according to the World Bank. At the same time, Rwanda has engineered a surprisingly fast economic recovery. After falling into devastation in 1994, with many farms and businesses abandoned, damaged or destroyed, Rwanda’s economy has since tripled in size and has grown at an average rate of 6 percent since 2004. Though the population is balancing out — women edge men by a rate of 52 to 48 — women make up 55 percent of the workforce, according to Commerce Minister Monique Nsanzabaganwa. … By Western standards, women still have a long way to go in Rwanda. Many of the women in [Rwanda] who have husbands are culturally expected to ask their permission before engaging in any form of business. But some of these women who have inherited land from genocide victims have been able to use income from farming or renting that land to gain a measure of financial independence.”

The real tragedy is that it took a tragedy for Rwandan men to appreciate the contribution that women can make to the economy. It is a lesson that needs to be learned in most societies, but especially in those that place less emphasis on educating females than males. No developing country can expect to emerge from poverty’s grasp through the efforts of only half of its human capital.

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