How Rwandan Women Got Their Power

Twenty years after Rwanda’s genocide, the country’s women have made huge strides in politics and law. But culture changes more slowly.

KIGALI, Rwanda — Alphonsine Mukarugema, the outgoing president of Rwanda’s Women’s Parliamentary Forum, never aspired to politics. She was a teacher, like her husband, at a school about an hour outside of Kigali, the capital, and she loved it. Her husband taught math; she taught French. Their life was ordinary, happy.

In 1994, Mukarugema’s husband and first child were killed in the genocide that took the lives of an estimated 800,000 people in just 100 days. Rwanda is not a country where people cry in public, but merely mentioning her husband and child, in a conversation 20 years later, brings Mukarugema tears.

It’s not a detail she shares gratuitously: She wants to emphasize what she means when she describes the choice Rwandan women — Tutsis who survived the slaughter perpetrated against them, Hutus whose husbands were sent to prison as accused perpetrators — made after the genocide.

“Women pushed themselves to move past their differences,” Mukarugema said. “They wanted to have one voice [and use it] to deal with the problems that the country had.”

That’s also partly how Mukarugema ended up in politics. She was a popular teacher, appreciated by her students — she still pats her heart at the memory of her former students introducing her to fiancées and in-laws and business partners as “my teacher” — and by their parents. In 2001, that appreciation pushed her into politics when her neighbors urged her to run for mayor of her district. She ran, and won.

Then, in 2003, Rwanda passed a new constitution, articulating what the newly post-conflict country wanted to achieve. Among its foundational values was gender equality: The new constitution emphasized equality between men and women and re-affirmed the commitment of Rwanda, under an earlier regime, to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Perhaps more importantly, the document provided paths for acting on those heady values. It established National Women’s Councils, which bring women together to troubleshoot community problems and which help organize women to run for office, and reserved 30% of “the posts of decision-making organs” for women. In the legislature, it spelled this out clearly, by requiring eight of the 26 senators to be women, and calling for separate elections for the 24 seats reserved for women in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. The constitution also established an independent gender watchdog.

These ambitions brought results. Today, Rwanda is the only country in the world with a female-majority parliament, a fact that has brought the country wide praise from the international community for its commitment to women’s leadership.

But Rwandan President Paul Kagame says that misses the point. “Even before you talk about women leadership, it’s about … participation,” Kagame told BuzzFeed during a recent interview. “We are not doing women a favor, really. It is an issue of giving them what belongs to them, as a matter of rights. That’s at least how we think about it. … Leadership is just a consequence, just a result of that.”

Which brings us back to Mukarugema.

In 2003, even before her first term as mayor concluded, Mukarugema decided to run for one of parliament’s 24 seats for women, and won. But it’s what she did next that illustrates how Rwandan women ascended to power so quickly.

In 2008, during the next election cycle, Mukarugema released her affirmative action seat, renouncing the constitutional boost that had helped bring her into national politics. She said she did this because she knew she had assets, like experience and name recognition, that other women — women like herself only seven years earlier — didn’t have. “I wanted to give that chance to other women,” she said.

Mukarugema decided to compete in the political free market by running as a political party candidate (a separate balloting process in Rwanda). She joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the political party that grew out of the rebel group, headed by Kagame, that ended the genocide. Running as a political candidate brings no special privilege for being a woman — except, she said, for the equality principle enshrined in the ballot. “They … make the [ballot] like a zebra. If the first name is a man, the second must be a woman, the third a man, the fourth a woman, not just put all the women on the bottom of the list.”

Mukarugema wasn’t alone in sizing up the new system’s collective opportunity. That strategic use of affirmative action — getting a leg up, and then getting out of the way — has helped propel Rwandan women into 64% of the country’s seats in parliament.

Rwandan policewomen landing in Darfur, Sudan, to assist with peacekeeping in 2010. Via Flickr: unamid-photo

That statistic is the most frequently cited evidence of the advancement of women in Rwanda. But alone, it’s only descriptive. Beatrice Mukasine, president of the National Women’s Council, said the laws that parliament passes, and the changes they have brought — or not brought — for women are the key issue.

Every conversation about women’s advancement in Rwanda starts with its marriage and land laws, which revolutionized women’s rights. A 1999 marriage and inheritance law gave women and girls equal rights as heirs and allowed couples to choose whether to blend their assets in marriage or to retain them individually, and a 2005 land law gave women equal rights to land ownership, including the right to consent to sale of the land. Together, the two laws built a foundation for women’s economic independence from men.

In 2008, Rwanda’s parliament passed a gender-based violence law, which criminalized marital rape and laid groundwork for police precincts’ “one-stop centers,” where women can report abuse and seek medical help, shelter, or other resources. The bill was a victory not only for women, but for Rwanda’s majority-female parliament: Usually draft bills come down to parliament from the president’s office; the gender-based violence bill was the first time parliament initiated its own legislation.

But Rwanda’s gender laws are not all rosy stories. In November, the two-thirds-female parliament voted to reduce maternity leave from three months to six weeks, a decision that flabbergasted Enatha Mukantwari, 30, a biotechnologist in the national Rwanda Medical Center.

“Those women in parliament, they did nothing to talk about it. It is a negative impact on maternity,” she said. She wondered how female parliamentarians could be “sitting there … voting for this law, and yet [they] know the impact of being at home, looking after [their] kid when he is 3 months old.”

Syvere Mwizerwa said decisions that are unfriendly toward women suggest that men still have the bulk of influence in the parliament. “Of course we have 64% of women in parliament, but if you look at decisions [that are] really made, even made for women, these decisions are not being taken by women. Men are always influencing,” said Mwizerwa, who works for Sustainable Health Enterprises, or SHE, a New York-based non-government organization that makes affordable sanitary pads out of locally sourced grasses.

Even on something as simple as tax law, he sees gender discrepancies. “Computers do not have tax when imported. Medicine, tablets, and everything like that, comes in free of charge,” he said. Meanwhile, “SHE has been shouting for so many years to wipe the tax on sanitary pads, as it is waived on condoms, because condoms.”

Employees of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) assemble pads made from banana fibers in Ngoma, Rwanda. Dany Karemera/SHE

The construction companies that build Rwanda’s new modern markets don’t usually understand, at first, why they have to talk to Rose Rwabuhihi. What does the country’s chief gender monitor have to do with erecting scaffolding or mixing cement?

“Toilets,” Rwabuhihi explains. Most of country’s architects, bricklayers, and other construction workers are men. But these days, many of the people selling in markets are women. They generally work long days — days that need a bathroom break. But rare is the man who, without prompting, considers the women’s toilet.

“If a man wants to go to the toilet, go behind a tree and he’s done. It’s not the same for women,” Rwabuhihi said. If there’s no toilet, she starts scanning the area for a bush big enough to provide cover, far enough away not to attract attention. Then she looks for someone who can watch her stuff while she trundles all that way, someone who hopefully won’t skim a bit while she’s gone. All that, Rwabuhihi said, is just empty, unnecessary stress.

In the grand scheme of gender equality, she concedes, toilets are small things. But so many key elements of Rwanda’s gender advancement can sound so simple: Today, women can open bank accounts or take out a loan without needing a man’s signature (though some young women still say they get hassled, or told to bring in their husbands, in the process). She can register a piece of land in her own name — land she can use as an asset for credit, inherit when her husband passes, and will to her female children.

Other changes can leave a listener agape at just how tough things work. Before the genocide, remembered Fatuma Ndangiza, “if a man was committing adultery, the punishment would either be 1,000 francs [about $1.50] or being in prison for a few days. But for a woman it had to be at least six months’ imprisonment. We used to play around and say, OK, if a man has 5,000 francs, he can go commit adultery with one woman, pay a fine, and then go to another one, and another one…”

Ndangiza has been on the inside of Rwanda’s gender reforms. She helped build the country’s Ministry of Gender, working underneath the country’s first gender minister, the late and oft-praised Aloisea Inyumba, and later in various high-level posts, including as ambassador to Tanzania.

Ndangiza knows firsthand how dramatic the shift has been, because she spent countless hours, in the first years after the genocide, trying to persuade local communities that allowing women to own and inherit property was a good idea. “Even some women, especially old women, were so resistant to this idea. They were saying, ‘When did this start? Culture has decided it’s the men who own property, they’re the breadwinners, and there’s no need for a woman to inherit property,’” she said.

“It took us almost two years to sensitize communities to accept this [inheritance] law. That shows you how patriarchal Rwanda still is. Although we have advanced, we are still patriarchal,” Ndangiza said.

Women selling fruits at Kimironko market, Kigali’s biggest food market. Jina Moore/BuzzFeed

There is, perhaps, some numerical truth to Ndangiza’s assessment. Men run the same percentage of the country’s ministries as women have seats in parliament. Women are only 16% of the country’s executive secretaries or directors-general — top administrative posts — and less than a quarter of the country’s ambassadors.

Local leadership statistics are even more imbalanced. Only 6% of Rwanda’s mayors are women. Women make up just 9% of leadership at the sector level and only 7% of the district leadership. (Sectors are somewhat analogous to U.S. counties, and districts to U.S. states.)

But at the most local level — in the “cells” that are a highly organized country’s smallest bureaucratic unit of organization — nearly 40% of the leadership are women. So why are women missing in the middle?

“We get asked that question by every visitor,” said Mukasine of the National Women’s Council. There’s no social science on the leadership gap, but women, of course, have ideas: low education levels, undeveloped skills, the rural-urban divide typical of even developed countries, or even simple Rwandan geography, given how far from a district office a rural woman may live.

“Another explanation,” Mukasine offers, almost as a last resort, “is that something has to start somewhere.”

But women leaders and ordinary Rwandans also mention another factor: women’s own will.

Sunday Justin Nzitatira is no stranger to women’s ambition. He was once scolded by a Ugandan rector when he went to pay the tuition for his wife’s master’s degree. The rector couldn’t believe Nzitatira, who had no advanced degree, would let his wife have one first. “‘In Uganda,’” he remembers the rector saying, “‘you can’t take a wife for a master’s when you don’t have it.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. That’s a sign of gender violence.’”

But Nzitatira said women generally have to come forward as eager leaders, and he worries that the pace of advancement has been too fast – not just for the culture, but for women themselves.

“I think that women in Rwanda are under too much pressure, which is confusing most of them,” he said. “They don’t even know what to start, what to do to be equal to men.”

Like other young Rwandans, Nzitatira, 28, thinks the country has come far. But many say that everyday life is full of negative pressures for women. It’s common, some said, for female candidates in the final stage of job interviews to be asked for sex, tacitly, discreetly, in a way that doesn’t leave a woman with any evidence. And though it’s illegal, few women would report such an abuse.

Cultural norms influence that reluctance too. Young Rwandans say it would still be difficult to get married if a woman’s community found out she was raped, and some single Rwandan mothers say they face discrimination that’s supposed to be illegal.

“One time I went to the bank, and they tell me, ‘You bring your man here and he signs,’” one young single mother said. “I said, ‘This is my salary, I work for this … I have spent a lot of time with you. You don’t trust me, and you want to trust a man whom you have never seen?’”

And then there’s just the good old-fashioned universal sexism.

“In our culture, we have names … for women who act as men,” explained Solange Impano, a 32-year-old single mother who lives in Kigali. “It’s ibishegabo, it’s not something I would feel proud to be called. It’s an embarrassment from the community. [If you] act like a man, taking decisions [of] the household, you would be called ibishegabo.”

Women in rural Rwanda prepare ikigage, sorghum beer, over a fire. Jina Moore/BuzzFeed

Rwanda isn’t the only place in Africa women are ascending — Liberia and Malawi have both elected women heads of state in the last decade, for example — but there is something unique about the ascent of women in Rwanda, something that goes back to the country’s tragic history, and even beyond.

It’s what Alice Karekezi calls Rwandans’ “interconnectedness.”

“In Rwanda, if you want to put it simply, we need one another,” said Karekezi, who has worked with the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and who co-founded the Center for Conflict Prevention in Butare. “We can’t do without the other … In rural areas, you ask [for] salt [from] your neighbor. When you are ready to give birth, it’s your neighbor who takes you to the health center.”

Those interrelationships were ruptured by the 1994 genocide. But it was women who moved first — and who had to move first — to work together in the aftermath.

“Men are dead, because they were the most important target during the genocide, so they were killed first. And those who had killed were in prison or fled,” Karekezi said. “Practically, people had to learn to cooperate, even if they had resentment.”

Karekezi said that need to work together, experienced primarily by women left behind, helped Rwandans toward healing. But it also helped build a foundation for women’s cooperation in politics and civil society.

Mukarugema, the history teacher turned lawmaker, agreed. “It was very complicated at this moment, right after the genocide,” she said. Some women were widows; some were wives of alleged perpetrators, arrested to await trial; and some were returning from refugee camps in Tanzania and Uganda, where their families had fled after earlier waves of ethnic violence, or even from Europe and North America.

Each of those groups had different perspectives and different needs, she said. But all of them realized, she said, “we had to deal with the problems and the consequences of genocide. We had to talk in the name of all Rwandans. And we had to speak of and to see all Rwandans as Rwandans, whatever may be our sadness, whatever may be our differences.”

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