Women’s empowerment in Rwanda is a challenge known to women all too well. So, how do we, as humans, become empowered? How do we gain the confidence that allows us to stand with our heads held tall and proclaim – yes, we can!? The answer is surprisingly straightforward.
To feel empowered, we must have access to opportunities that cultivate experience, resilience and knowledge. We must feel in ourselves a strength, worthy of testing, but above all, we must have had that strength encouraged. This is empowerment. But, there is a catch. In our ever-modernized world, over half the population lacks that essential component of agency, and the majority are women.
Following the end of the Rwandan Genocide in the Spring of 1994, the country’s new leadership introduced a series of inclusionary acts that aimed to re-establish the position of women in their strongly patriarchal society.
The approach, though indeed revolutionary, has all the hang-ups usually associated with Top-Down solutions for social change. Namely, the government’s new policy, such as its required 1:3 proportion of women to men in parliament, has done little to alter the reign of patriarchy in the general consciousness of the male population. Though the achievements it can claim are remarkable in comparison to many of its neighbor states, the fact remains that the women of Rwanda have yet to realize full empowerment.
Those who can claim empowerment are, interestingly, most often survivors of the genocide. In these cases, the basis of their empowerment stems from what they have made of their shared experience since 1994, not so much from the government’s policy shifts.
A popular example of women’s empowerment in Rwanda is that of the Widows Associations which formed in response to the massive loss of men during the genocide. Acting, at first, as a support network for newly widowed women, these associations gradually morphed into collations of women who found themselves, and the flaws of patriarchy, after assuming their new roles as Rwanda’s primary breadwinners.
After 20 years of action, they have transitioned from the promotion of women’s issues, as they had in the late 1990s, and are now looking inward to support the survivors of genocide. More specifically, those nearly 500,000 women who were raped in 1994. The result of which is a 76 percent prevalence of HIV in survivors of rape, and a 25-30 percent occurrence of PTSD symptoms in the whole of Rwanda’s female population alive in 1994.
In the schools, in the home and in less internationally visible arenas, women and girls continue to face the expectations of traditional patriarchy. Even those who have attained seats in parliament have been found, according to a 2014 NPR story, to experience adverse situations at home. This includes marital rape and abuse, as well as general gendered expectations for marital roles (i.e. women do the cleaning, cooking, etc.).
Ultimately, the challenge women’s empowerment in Rwanda faces is the permeation of social norms. It is only once this has occurred that women at all levels of society will be provided the social support necessary for universal empowerment to occur.
– Katrina Schrag