From Genocide to Gender Parity: Rwanda's Experience
Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Nicaragua and Rwanda are very distinct countries, yet they share one striking similarity; their commitment to promoting gender parity. According to the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Gender Gap Index, these countries are at the forefront when it comes to closing the gap between men and women. The index ranks countries based on the degree of female participation in the economy, their health, their educational attainment and their political empowerment.
Alongside Namibia, Rwanda is the only African Country to make the top 10 and has been labelled as the best place to be a woman in the continent.
1994 was an extremely dark year for Rwanda. It experienced one of the most brutal and bloodiest genocides in modern history. In the span of 100 days, close to a million Tutsi's lost their lives and over 350,000 women were victims of sexual abuse. In July 1994, Paul Kagame’s party, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), ended the genocide and regained control of the country. Kagame has been President since 2000 till date.
Against all odds, this Central East African nation did not let its history define its future. Today, Rwanda has evolved and greatly healed from its traumatic past and has now become the paradigm of growth and development in Africa.
Perhaps, the most impressive accomplishment of Rwanda is that they have made significant progress towards closing the wide gender gap that existed pre-genocide. The government gave women an opportunity to excel and lead; a rarity for a post-conflict African nation.
The Man Responsible
Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda and the man largely responsible for rebuilding the country post-genocide, played a fundamental role in fostering gender equality in the nation.
Conflict affects men and women differently. Men tend to be at the epicentre, while women remain in the background providing support, healthcare and food to wounded soldiers - a role that they mirror in their homes. Rwanda was so torn after the genocide and Kagame realised that male labour was insufficient to restructure and rebuild the nation. The war had claimed so many male lives, leaving females as the majority - 70% of the population.
Faced with the huge task of ensuring the survival of their families, women began to speak up and step up. They clamoured for equality within their marriages and in the labour market. This development fuelled Kagame to pass a new decree in 2003, stating that 30 percent of parliamentary seats should be reserved for women. The Rwandan parliament is the only one in the world where women outnumber men; with women holding 64% of the seats.
But, the government did not stop there. They put in place legal and structural reforms in key areas to enhance the economic status of women and improve their well-being. Some of them include: (i) the Law on Matrimonial Regimes, Donations, Succession and Liberalities (1999) which specifies gender equality in property ownership in marriages and inheritance (ii) the Gender Policy (2004) (iii) the Organic Land Law (2005) which ensures equal access to land for both men and women (iv) the Law for the Prevention, Protection and Punishment of Gender-Based Violence (2008) which was implemented to help end violence against women.
The government also prioritised female education and made a conscious effort to empower women at an early age to prepare them for leadership roles in the future.
Behind Closed Doors
Rwanda has made tremendous progress in promoting gender equality; largely driven by strong government commitment and constitutional refurbishment. Yet, despite its great accomplishment, the private lives of women do not align with their public lives.
Although many women are financially liberated and hold powerful positions, they still experience immense inequality in their homes. According to the United Nations, high rates of domestic violence still persist in the country. Rwanda is still a predominantly patriarchal society and societal expectations and norms are still finely shaped by gender. Oddly, Rwandan men complain that they live in a matriarchy - a society dominated by women.
This points to the fact that political participation and representation is not enough . In order to truly and fully create an equal society, there is a need for an attitudinal shift through sensitization campaigns and dialogue with key stakeholders. It is counterproductive for a woman to hold herself in high esteem at the workplace and do the opposite within the walls of her home.
Rwanda's laudable achievement did not happen by chance. The government prioritised women; they built structures and systems that enhanced female participation at all levels of governance. Although it is far from perfect, their approach towards reducing the gap between men and women is one that can be replicated by many countries still struggling to achieve this important sustainable development goal.
Gender equality is a basic human right and a sine qua non for growth and development in any society. Rwanda's experience affirms the belief that the equal participation of women in decision-making and other key areas of the economy can prove to be highly beneficial for a nation. In the words of Kagame, "we cannot claim to be on a sustainable path to transform society if we exclude women".