Gender Equality in RwandaThis year marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. In 1994, from April 7 to July 24, approximately 800,000 Rwandans were massacred and up to 500,000 women were raped. However, 24 years later, Rwanda ranks sixth in the world for gender equality, the top non-European country besides Nicaragua.

Women and Politics

Representation of women in politics significantly helped improve gender equality in Rwanda. Since 2003, women have had a constitutionally protected place in the Rwandan government. The Rwandan constitution mandates 30 percent of representatives be female. As a result, the number of women in parliament increased from 18 percent in the 1990s to 64 percent as of 2013. In terms of a male-female ratio in parliament, Rwanda tops international rankings. Furthermore, President Paul Kagame’s current cabinet is the second in Africa to contain an equal ratio of men to women.

While better representation does not end all gender inequality, it improves women’s status in society. With female representation, society sees women as leaders. And more importantly, female representation helps create better legislation for women and encourages gender equality in Rwanda.

Women and Development

Rwanda is a largely rural country and depends on agriculture for economic growth. Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product per capita ranks 206th in the world. However, Rwanda possesses a remarkable current GDP per capita given its recent history. Rwanda lost much of its traditional workforce to genocide, also resulting in 500,000 orphaned children. Since then, women have pioneered Rwanda’s development. The country possesses the highest rate of female labor force participation in the workforce compared to the rest of the African continent. Additionally, over 70 percent of women are engaged in a sector of the primary economy, and they make up 79 percent of the agricultural workforce, though not all are paid.

Consequently, women in development programs bolster gender equality in Rwanda, as they spearhead the country’s fast growth. Rwanda is currently hosting a wide range of development projects. These projects aim to both modernize the business of agriculture and ensure women are prepared for this modernization. Launched in 2015, the Capacity Development for Agricultural Innovation Systems program is being piloted in eight countries worldwide. This program aims to equip communities with the technological and soft skills necessary to navigate modern markets.

Mukamusoni Alexia, a cassava farmer, is one of 106 members in the newly formed ‘Ubumwe Mbuye’ Cooperative. According to Alexia, the cooperative facilitates a dialogue addressing local challenges and enabled her processing plant to acquire loans. Now, Alexia’s cooperative generates over 800 tons of cassava a month and provides 30 tons per week to a processing plant.

Many of these farming cooperatives are female-led or reserved for women, a long-term project to redefine gender roles and allow women to bring home family income.

Women and Education

Educating women is the key to gender equality. However, Rwanda’s education system struggles from a lack of resources. As a result, fewer students continue to secondary education. Moreover, Rwanda ranks low on the United Nations’ Development Programme’s Life Course Gender-Gap index.

Several of the most successful education projects focus on reducing gender-based violence. In doing so, empowered women can succeed at home and will, therefore, stay in school. A troubling statistic reflects 34.4 percent of Rwandan women experience violence from an intimate partner.

CARE International supports a program called Safe School For Girls. This program mentors girls as they transition from lower to upper secondary school. Plus, it provides sexual health education to more than 47,000 students across the Southern Province of Rwanda. Furthermore, this program hopes to engage boys in the dialogue through “round table talks.” These talks discuss the barriers women and girls face and how boys can help end gender-based violence. So far, Safe School For Girls has engaged over 19,000 boys in these talks. Improving the climate around education and identifying where women face barriers is critical for gender equality in Rwanda.

A Model for Gender Equality

While women still face a variety of obstacles, Rwanda acts as a model for gender equality worldwide. Rwanda’s Human Development Rank is still low. Subsequently, many argue gender equality in parliament is a smokescreen for President Kagame’s authoritarian regime, now entering its 19th successive year.

However, in spite of these developmental barriers, Rwanda has demonstrated gender equality is a realistic and attainable goal. The country’s real GDP growth stands at 8.6 percent, the second highest globally, showing full integration of women in society is critical for economic development. Rwandan women helped the country’s remarkable rebirth after a devastating genocide, and they are the main drivers behind its emerging prosperity today.

Holly Barsham
Photo: Flickr

Gender Equality and Female Empowerment in Rwanda
Although Rwanda is considered an impoverished nation, it ranks number four in gender equality. On the same scale, The United States ranks number 49. Interestingly, this shift towards gender equality in Rwanda came as a result of the 1994 genocide.

Before that tragic event, women were usually caretakers and were rarely financially independent or in a position of power. During the genocide, more than 800,000 people died in just 100 days, and most of these individuals were men. This shifted the population to be 60 – 70 percent female and as a result, women were forced into formerly male-dominated jobs.

Government Support of Women

President Kagame led this movement, realizing women were necessary for the country’s recovery because there simply were not enough men to rebuild. The government rewrote the constitution in 2003, encouraging female education and requiring at least 30 percent of positions in parliament to be held by women.

In the first election following this change, the requirement was exceeded with 48 percent of seats going to women. The following election saw an even greater increase with 64 percent of parliamentary seats being held by females. This makes Rwanda number one in a global ranking of countries with the most women in legislature. For comparison, The United States ranks 96 with only 19 percent of seats going to women.

Social Inequality as a Mindset

Despite these great strides towards gender equality in Rwanda, women’s perception at home does not seem to line up with that of their public lives. Girls are still raised to be submissive both in school at home, believing that something as simple as becoming president of a club is reserved only for men.

While they are holding positions of power and becoming economically independent, women still fear speaking out against their husbands and are expected to continue to be the only one to take care of housework and childcare. Many Rwandan women see the term “feminism” as a negative, Western concept.

Unlike most social movements, this change in gender equality did not come from the oppressed group, but from President Paul Kagame. Rwandan women were ushered into positions of power before they truly believed in the movement, and now, they must play catch up with their mindset.

Working to Change Preconceived Ideas

Many organizations are helping to change that perception, starting with female education. Women to Women International has a one-year foundation training program, enabling women to become financially self-sufficient and, subsequently, build the confidence to fight for their rights and equality at home. This organization has helped 76,000 women in the ten years it has been operating.

The Akilah Institute for Women is an all-female college that fosters a more positive learning environment for women, enhancing the skills needed to launch careers in many different fields. The Institute has an 88 percent success rate for graduates. Fawe’s Girls’ School encourages young girls to take STEM courses to overcome the stigma that these classes are generally for men. They work to empower girls to understand their importance and to defend their rights. They also work to train teachers to be more gender inclusive.

Gender equality in Rwanda is far ahead of most of the world, but women must truly believe in their rights for this to be effective. With the next generation being raised in a world where gender does not restrict women from a job and schools encourage female participation and confidence; hopefully, Rwandan women will embrace their newfound power and continue to lead the world in gender equality.

Georgia Orenstein
Photo: Flickr

Working Towards Gender Equality in Rwanda
Founded in 1945, the United Nations (U.N.) is an international organization made up of 193 member states. The U.N. takes on many issues, including food production and gender equality. Four of its branches, the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (U.N. Women), are working together to implement the Rural Women Economic Empowerment Project (Project). The Project works toward gender equality in Rwanda by empowering women through agriculture.

Rwanda has the highest population density in Africa, but the country is largely rural. Overall, about a quarter of Rwandans live in extreme poverty. However, in rural communities, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty rises to almost half. Because of Rwanda’s limited natural resources, its citizens depend on its agriculture economy. Read more

Rwanda education
In Rwanda, culture plays an important role when it comes to education, as girls are often raised to be submissive at home and taught to not speak up like boys do.

Girls are “supposed to” focus on their household first and foremost and put education second. Justine Uvuza, a former advocate for women’s rights, reported a housewife’s words about gender roles: Her husband expected her to make sure that his shoes were polished, the water was put in the bathroom for him, his clothes were ironed.”

Girls might need to break some barriers when choosing a career. Rwanda’s culture is male-oriented, so girls who choose a career path that is more common among men may experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

Girls Hygiene and School Attendance

Having a period while attending school is a normal part of western girls’ lives, but this experience might give Rwandan students a more uncomfortable outcome. A restroom with running water is still considered a luxury in some rural areas, which makes it difficult for girls to clean themselves while in school.

Staggering statistics are part of the facts about girls’ education in Rwanda: 10 percent of girls between 10-14 years old have access to menstrual pads in Rwanda. Male teachers also need to be more aware of their needs, as girls are not allowed to leave classrooms to use the restroom.

One student stated: “When I was on my period I would leave school and stay at home, sometimes for up to a week. I didn’t feel clean and didn’t want to use the bad toilets that we shared with boys. Because I was missing one week of school every month, I found it hard to keep up with my studies.”

Unwanted Pregnancy and School Dropouts

In 2016, 17,000 teens got pregnant in Rwanda. Girls don’t get the proper sexual education information from their parents and are often forced to drop out of school to take care of their children.

Puberty is still an uncomfortable subject for some parents, as one mother relates: “I have two sons and a daughter who are in secondary school. They often ask tough questions and I feel ashamed, or fail to answer. For example, one day my daughter asked me what follows after a girl develops breasts.”

If there were more straightforward parent-child conversation, many teenage pregnancies could be prevented from happening and help keep Rwanda’s teens on a stable academic path.

Farming Activities and Education Access

Most families in Rwanda plant what they consume; however, they often lack resources such as potable water, and some women in Africa even have to walk for six miles every day to get it. The lack of clean water causes parasite-inflicted diseases, which often keeps children from primary education.

Children are oftentimes unable to attend schools because they have to provide housework help for their families. In fact, some students have to walk three miles every day before school so as to take potable water to their families.

The Good News

There are still student success stories despite the challenges they face. The Akilah Institute for women gives girls a positive platform to voice their opinions. The group created a female debate team — the first in the country — as a way to become more confident about their role in a male-dominated society.

The team also discussed the topic of “Western feminism,” a concept still fairly new in Rwanda, in the process of taking the debate trophy home. In addition to such success, UNICEF started a program called Child Friendly Schools in 2001 which provides schools with improved infrastructure to deal with girls’ hygiene concerns.

One school located in the Bugesera district has now separated restrooms, provides sanitary towels for girls and has water and soap available for personal hygiene and clothes washing. The dropout numbers decreased after these ‘simple’ measures, and girls now feel less embarrassed about their periods while attending school.     

Girls’ Education in Rwanda

The Young Women’s Christian Association educates youth about preventing teen pregnancies. The GrowupSmart program teaches teens how to understand body changes during puberty. The program has taught more than a 1,000 girls about reproductive health, and it has also reached out to parents, turning parent-child sex discussions a common practice.

Measures like these have prevented many school dropouts. World Vision, the Christian organization, has also helped more than 340,000 people with sanitation and clean water in only five years. They also teach the people in rural areas how to dig wells.

These problems related to girls’ education in Rwanda have solutions — the help of partnerships between the government, relief agencies and nonprofit organizations. A pessimistic scenario can be used as a driver to action, and such motivation paired with humanitarian aid can produce doable results.

– Nijessia Cerqueira
Photo: Flickr