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Update on Rwanda’s Women

November 13, 2008


Fourteen years ago Rwanda suffered a massive, man-made humanitarian disaster as neighbors were driven to slaughter neighbors by malicious radio broadcasts and unchecked rumors. Although Rwanda itself has begun to move forward [see my post Moving Forward in Rwanda], the aftershocks of Rwanda’s civil war still reverberate in the area [“Embers of Rwandan Genocide Flare,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 30 October 2008]. Most of the remaining instability and conflict, however, are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo not in Rwanda. McCrummen writes:

“Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, a cultish figure who has the sympathy of neighboring Rwanda, has said he is fighting to protect the region’s minority ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias that fled to eastern Congo after the genocide. He recently expanded his ambitions, however, saying he wished to ‘liberate’ all of Congo. As his forces approached [Goma], Congolese military commanders abandoned their troops, escaping to nearby villages, melting into the city or leaving by boat across sprawling Lake Kivu. … Among those fleeing toward Goma were more than 45,000 displaced people from a camp in the area, Okabe said. Another 1,000 civilians went to neighboring Uganda.”

For an additional perspective, read the editorial entitled “Rwanda’s Shadow” in today’s New York Times. Another fallout from Rwanda’s civil war, is that Rwanda is leaving the circle of French-speaking nations [“Rwandans Say Adieu to Français,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 28 October 2008]. Although Rwandan officials claim that the decision to drop French in favor of English had nothing to do with past grievances and based solely on economic considerations, some find that hard to believe.

“Rwanda has accused the French of arming the former Rwandan army and ethnic Hutu militias, even as they carried out the 1994 genocide. About 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days of planned, systematic violence. The Rwandan government recently accused 33 senior French military and political officials of direct involvement in the genocide, demanding that they stand trial. Among those implicated is François Mitterand, president of France at the time of the genocide and now deceased. French officials have denied responsibility, conceding only that “political” errors were made. In 2006, a French judge accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the Tutsi rebel group that eventually stopped the genocide, of being involved in the downing of a plane carrying his predecessor, President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose death in April 1994 gave Hutu leaders the pretext to begin the genocide.”

The government’s decision to drop French might also have something to do with the fact that the Rwanda’s president is not a native French speaker. When he was child, Kagame’s family fled to Uganda (an English-speaking country) and that was where he was raised and from where he mounted his rebellion.


The grievances between Hutus and Tutsis began when European scholars and priests (who arrived with Belgian colonizers) invented a Tutsi history that claimed the minority Tutsis were from Ethiopia and were basically “black Caucasians” and better suited for leadership roles than their Hutu cousins (who make up approximately 90 percent of the population). As a result, the Tutsis ruled over the Hutus for years. The resulting resentment eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide. I realize that a two-sentence history is wholly inadequate to describe Rwanda’s complicated past, but it demonstrates how bad policies can poison the future for generations. And as you might expect, all of these bad policies were decided and implemented by men.


The women of Rwanda, however, seem to have had enough of male-dominated rule. In the post mentioned earlier and in another post entitled Rwanda’s Women, I noted that “the women of Rwanda have emerged as a potent economic force over the past decade as Rwanda tries to emerge from the grasp of internecine warfare and poverty.” Stephanie McCrummen provides an update on how Rwanda’s women are managing [“Women Run the Show In a Recovering Rwanda,” Washington Post, 27 October 2008].

“On a continent that has been dominated by the rule of men, this tiny East African nation is trying something new. Here, women are not only driving the economy — working on construction sites, in factories and as truck and taxi drivers — they are also filling the ranks of government. Women hold a third of all cabinet positions, including foreign minister, education minister, Supreme Court chief and police commissioner general. And Rwanda’s parliament last month became the first in the world where women claim the majority — 56 percent, including the speaker’s chair. One result is that Rwanda has banished archaic patriarchal laws that are still enforced in many African societies, such as those that prevent women from inheriting land. The legislature has passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, while a committee is now combing through the legal code to purge it of discriminatory laws.”

In other words, Rwanda’s women are doing quite nicely — thanks for asking. McCrummen reports that because so many women are now in leadership positions men, who historically have ignored women’s opinions, are now listening to them more attentively. The percentage of women in Rwanda’s parliament reflects the percentage of women in the country’s population (which is 55 percent female).

“But it also reflects the heavy hand of one man, President Paul Kagame, whose photo hangs on the walls of houses, restaurants and shops. It also hovered over the swiveling leather chair of parliament speaker Rose Mukantabana as she opened a session late last week. Since the 1994 genocide, … Kagame, a Tutsi, has enforced a kind of zealous social engineering. With a population that was about 70 percent female after the genocide, Kagame’s new government adopted ambitious policies to help women economically and politically, including a new constitution in 2003 requiring that at least 30 percent of all parliamentary and cabinet seats go to women. The remaining 26 percent of the women in parliament were indirectly elected. … While many African legislatures have adopted quotas reserving seats for female lawmakers, none has done so as ambitiously as Rwanda. The country’s overall attitude toward gender puts it at odds with its neighbors.”

McCrummen is primarily thinking about the Congo and the continued violence noted earlier. But other Rwandan neighbors also have problems.

“In the run-up to Kenyan elections last year, several female candidates were beaten and threatened with sexual violence. One was murdered. Out of the legislature’s 222 lawmakers, 21 are women.”

Rwandan women are very aware of their new-found status and want to ensure that it is reflected in their society.

“Women successfully lobbied for the removal of a statue in a central roundabout that depicted a woman holding a jug of water on her head and a baby on her hip. In its place came a more neutral one: a smiling woman free of the jug, holding the hand of a little boy walking alongside her.”

Women are so influential in Rwanda that one female member of parliament remarked that the big joke in the country is that very soon Rwanda will need affirmative action for men. Even though Rwanda’s women are looking forward to the future, they haven’t forgotten the past.

“Though profound tensions and scars from the genocide still exist here, so does a strong sense of national purpose tinged with unapologetic political correctness. It is taboo to speak of Hutus or Tutsis these days; everyone is Rwandan. The last Saturday of every month is community work day, when neighbors gather for six hours to help with a collective project — clearing brush, or repairing a less-fortunate neighbor’s house. ‘We are doing this for ourselves — not because it’s a law,’ said Beatrice Namyonga, who was clearing weeds with her neighbors. When it comes to the role of women, a similar attitude prevails.”

As in most traditional societies, change does not come easy to Rwanda either. The new role of women is greeted with skepticism by some.

“In general, men here seem to have accepted and even embraced the policy of promoting women in government, even if their endorsement at times carries a dutiful tone. … In some quarters of Rwandan society — particularly among older men and Hutu men who harbor some mistrust of Kagame’s government — the policy is viewed with faint suspicion.”

 McCrummen ends her piece with an amusing encounter she had with two men in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.

“‘Maybe now that women have more than 50 percent in parliament, it could be a big problem,’ said Thomas Habumuisha, 29, who was out shopping with a friend. … ‘Maybe women could take advantage and oppress men.’ His friend, Muhire Bitorwa, whose wife, a teacher, is helping pay his way through Kigali University, nodded politely, but disagreed. ‘In my view, women are more reasonable, more merciful and less corrupt than men,’ he offered. ‘And culturally, women have not been recognized.'”

Sounds like Mr. Bitorwa wants to continue his college education. I also happen to believe he is correct. Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank primarily lends to women because they have a much better record than men for paying back loans. Women’s honesty and hard work is being put to good use in Rwanda and I hope they succeed in making that small country a beacon to others. Africa needs as many good role models as it can find.

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