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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

Rwandan Refugee Kids Waiting for Food on March 28th
Recently, the United Nations pledged $400 million to Rwanda to be paid out over the next five years. The announcement was happy news to a country that still has fresh emotional wounds from the 1990’s genocide from which it has yet to fully recover. This is the greatest nod from the international community that the country has received since earlier this year when it was awarded a seat on the UN Security Council.

Rwanda depends on external aid for 40% of the budget, but for years the nation’s GDP has been at 7%, slowing to 5.9% only in the first quarter of the year. Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s ultimate goal is to rely less on aid, and more on investment. Author Stephen Kinzer says that Kagame’s objective was to “have a country that really works, everybody speaks English, the Internet is super fast, the airport is totally free of corruption… then lure to Rwanda all the companies and economic interests that are working in this entire region.”

Many have spoken out against the nation’s president for human rights violations, including silencing political opposition and deaths attributed to Rwandan-backed rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. However, many are also lauding him for the way he is running his country economically. Vowing to make Rwanda a middle-income country by 2020, Kagame has boosted the nation’s coffee, tea, and tourism industries dramatically.

Harvard University Professor Michael Porter is convinced that Rwanda is playing to its strengths by focusing on these areas. Natural resources are scarce there, but volcanic soils in high altitude are rich in nutrients and allow for abundant coffee and tea production, and the country’s rich biodiversity has opened up a great market for eco-tourism (for instance, Rwanda is one of the few safe places in the world to view mountain gorillas in their natural habitat). According to a statement issued by the Rwandan government on Thursday, approximately $124 million from the UN will be put towards economic and “governance” projects, bolstering these industries even more.

Much of that will also go toward increasing Rwanda’s energy capacity. Kagame wants his people to be ready to meet whatever demand for labor that may come with such a change. In an interview with Justin Fox, he said, “We keep sending our people to institutions of higher learning in the sciences, engineering, and management. It’s the focus because we want our people to understand how the new world works.”

But most Rwandans remain poor farmers living in subsistent conditions, and the lofty goals of 2020 cannot come soon enough for them. Luckily, the other $276 million from the UN will be spent solely on development in order to strengthen the health, education, and nutrition of the people. With memories still marred by a violent history, this country’s problems won’t disappear overnight, but progress is a principal priority of the people and the current administration alike. Speaking about Rwandan’s newfound awareness of their interdependence in the interview with Fox, Kagame says, “Yes, we need each other. We are more similar than different. It helps the society to move forward.”

– Samantha Mauney 

Sources: Bloomberg, The Independent, NPR