Rwanda’s women show the way

Eugene Kwibuka

With a gender imbalance in favour of women resulting from the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s government has introduced innovative policies and laws to ensure that females can participate equally in society. After advancement in the political sphere, renewed efforts are needed to ensure that women no longer bear the brunt of the effects of poverty

As Rwanda battles to reduce the poverty of its people, it is widely hoped that the increasing gender-awareness in the country can give it a special advantage. Members of parliament, of whom the majority are female, have been enacting laws to protect women’s rights and enforce the principle of equal opportunity in employment. These build on earlier statutes allowing women to inherit property and giving them equal rights in land tenure.

The adoption of such laws has been directly influenced by the effects of the 1994 genocide, which left many widows and daughters alone with homes and families to manage, creating a gender imbalance. Even now Rwanda still has a slight majority-female population – the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that 53 percent of Rwandans are female. And, with many of them either widows or unmarried, they remain poorer on average than males.

According to female MP Faith Mukakalisa, the most important priority at present is to educate women and to allow their daughters to go to school. “The children will help their parents get out of poverty,” she said. Thanks to the government’s nine-year basic education policy, which was announced in 2003, children can now study for free in state-run schools from Primary One up to Secondary Three. This has helped to achieve gender equality in both primary and secondary education.

It is seven years since the country’s current constitution, enacted in a 2003 referendum, mandated a 30 percent representation of women at all levels of government. Today, Rwanda’s bicameral parliament holds the world record for female political representation with over 50 percent of its members being women. They now occupy 43 out of the 80 seats in the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) as well as nine out of the 26 seats in the upper house (the Senate). The constitution has not only led to more women MPs, increasingly women are taking up positions as ministers, high-ranking police officers and local leaders – a huge advance for a country where they previously tended to remain at home as wives and mothers.

“The impact has been good and we are proud, we feel happy and we call it an achievement,” said Mukakalisa. The 49-year-old single mother has occupied her parliamentary seat since 2003 and represents the country’s Eastern Province. Her own experience shows that a lot has changed. Recalling the situation in the 1990s, she said, “You couldn’t easily find women to even campaign for leadership roles.”

Every day, women MPs are now being urged by ordinary citizens to hold the government accountable and to enact laws to improve Rwandan society. They lead parliamentary commissions on issues ranging from the economy and social affairs to human rights. They are also very active in campaigns against gender-based violence, as well as programmes to support female education. Among the most notable gender-related statutes enacted with women’s input have been the 1999 Inheritance Law, which allows females to inherit their parents and husbands’ property, including land, and the 2005 Land Law, which ensures that both women and men have equal rights in land tenure.

Women parliamentarians have also helped to push through a bill that outlaws violence against women. The 2008 Gender Based Violence Law sanctions a number of common practices that grossly violate women’s rights, including conjugal rape, concubinage, polygamy, neglect of girl children, sexual harassment and the prevention of female spouses from working. The 2009 Labour Law, which stresses the principle of non-sexual-based segregation in employment and women’s safety at work, provides protection for women in the workplace.

Female legislator Stephanie Mukantagara, who has spent two years in the Senate, said she appreciates the fact that she can talk freely in parliament and approves of women MPs shouldering leadership tasks, such as heading parliamentary commissions. She recalled that women were traditionally respected in Rwanda, stating that historically, hereditary kings had led the country with the support of their mothers. Mukantagaraat tributes the high level of gender promotion in the country to President Paul Kagame’s leadership. “There is a political will to promote women,” she explained.

Some of Kagame’s critics charge him with intolerance towards his political opponents but many still express support for his prowomen policies. Erin Baines, an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at Canada’s University of British Columbia, whose research focuses on Rwandan justice and reconciliation issues, gender, youth and armed conflict, said: “By including women in decision-making, the Rwandan government shrewdly draws upon the nation’s most important resource to help rebuild the country: women. It is a bold and smart move.”

But Baines has also urged the government to start looking at women’s inclusion as a model for the integration of other political views into the government system. “By including women, Rwanda has already seen some of the most progressive policy developments in terms of gender equality. However, it is necessary to also democratise its political system, so that all women and men can have a voice in the future of Rwanda,” she said.

The women now sitting in parliament and other decision-making institutions will increasingly be expected to provide solutions to Rwanda’s problems, such as the widespread poverty which is greatest among women, especially those who live in rural areas. The UNDP estimates that 62 percent of female-headed households in Rwanda lie below the poverty line compared to 54 percent of those with a male head. At 66 percent, the incidence of poverty is much higher in rural areas than in urban areas, where it stands at 12 percent in Kigali and 19 percent in other towns.

Both Mukakalisa and Mukantagara are proud of their commitment to helping their fellow women and countrymen. They, and many others like them in Rwanda, have become role models who inspire confidence in the ability of women to help their communities. “We are not very rich. This is Africa, but we have measures to reverse the current situation and vulnerable women are a priority,” Mukakalisa said, pledging her support to continue fighting for gender equality. She added that it will only be a matter of time before Rwandans can escape poverty as more and more women go to school, engage in job creation and take part in the governance of the country.

About the author:

Eugene Kwibuka is a Rwandan freelance journalist


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