Rwanda’s Women Remake a Nation

It’s been 17 years since more than 500,000 Rwandans were killed in the horrific genocide of 1994. Today, this tiny East African nation has become a poster child for women’s rights. How have they done it? And what more needs to be done?

KIGALI – Don’t blink, warn locals to a newly returning visitor, only half-joking, or you might miss it. The “it” in question refers to the quietly bustling capital city of Rwanda itself, or a tall smoky blue-glass building towering over a local neighborhood of corrugated rooftops and mud-earth houses. From high above, a shiny black octopus steadily extends its reach across Kigali, its tentacles newly paved roads replacing rocky red-earth ones. “Things are changing so fast here in Rwanda,” laughs Cecile, a student and budding tour operator. “We hardly recognize it ourselves. Kigali is becoming modern—a city of the future. even us who live here can’t keep track of how much is changing.”

Welcome to Rwanda. Blink, then look again. There, standing tall amid the mid-morning chaos of a rond-point, or traffic roundabout, is a young uniformed policewoman calmly halting an impatient mini-bus driver. There, behind the thick glass teller window at the local Banque Populaire du Rwanda, is a smart-looking older woman in a modern African-cut suit who quietly counts out a thick wad of blue-green mille-francs bills. Her customer, an elderly woman in a traditional dress and head wrap, looks on with quiet satisfaction. The money represents a week’s take—sales of fruit and cassava grown in a small plot an hour away by bus. With it, she’ll buy meat, cover school fees for her grandchildren, and soon, add electricity to her home. She is uneducated and poor, and like many here, a genocide widow. But she can sign her own name, and does, carefully and proudly, next to the number of her newly opened bank account.

All across the Land of a Thousand Hills, as Rwanda is known, scenes like this one play themselves out daily, reflecting the profound, ongoing changes and progress for women that have made Rwanda—once known only for the genocide of 1994—a global poster child for women’s rights. The nation is lauded by global leaders for many other achievements, too: in peacemaking, sustainable development, agriculture, healthcare, education, and communications. Tiny Rwanda, a country in ashes less than 20 years ago, boasts a fiber optic network that connects city residents with coffee farmers in its high hills and pygmy communities who share the border forests with gorillas. Coffee, gorillas, genocide, decent cell phone service—Rwanda today is a global tourist magnet, a Phoenix-like success story, and everywhere one looks, women are a part of it.

“I think it’s true to say that women have been extraordinary because of the huge burden they had to carry after the genocide,” said Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, a physician who’s also Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health, speaking at a February forum on the progress of women in Rwanda. “Women here have had a choice to be an active part of the rebuilding of the country and the reconciliation. And it was ordinary women and leaders, in the towns and rural areas—everyone participated.”

She’s quick to add that many hands joined the gender revolution, including men in the post-genocide Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) leadership. “We have not done this alone,” she adds. “It has involved all sectors of society, including the government and the President. The national policies have supported women to play a more active role.” Dr. Binagwaho also credits First Lady Jeanette Kagame for serving as a strong role model and for her advocacy on behalf of women, genocide and rape survivors, orphans, and people with HIV/AIDS. “I admire the First Lady a lot,” she added. “She’s very dynamic and intelligent and has done a lot for women here and for Africa.”
Rising from the Ashes

With husbands and sons murdered, women and girls made up 70% of the post-genocide population, many Tutsi women who had previously done only “women’s work”—farming, trading, caring for children. The door to public life swung open, and women joined the workforce and the government at all levels: as police, soldiers, engineers, builders, taxi, and bus drivers—all things once socially taboo. They also took roles in the judicial system, and it was there that the revolution began.

The genocide illuminated pre-existing inequities that made it harder for women survivors to recover. Widows discovered that they had also lost the right to their family property, since property laws did not allow women or girls to inherit. Others found that male relatives demanded they serve as “second wives.” Still others, now sick with HIV contracted from rape, found themselves evicted from family homes or lands. “It became clear to us that we had to reform the laws to address this discrimination,” said Ingnatienne Nyirarukundu, president of the Rwanda Forum of Women Parliamentarians (FFRP). “That also helped us to strengthen the overall judicial system.” . . .More…