Editorial: Women should be the first line of defence for their rights

A few weeks ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries, took everyone by surprise when at last it allowed women to drive.

In what was seen as the beginning of wider reforms, last week it also gave women the green light to attend sports events in stadiums.

This might come as a surprise to those who have taken gender parity for granted, but for conservative Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia’s about turn is a milestone.

As the recent gender parity report indicated, the gap has been widening slowly worldwide, but for Rwanda it was a different story. It was ranked fourth in the world in gender parity.

Most countries are signatories to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) but few really implemented it. Women’s rights, especially in patriarchal communities, were trampled upon giving tradition as an excuse.

Rwanda signed the treaty in 1980 and ratified it the following year, but two decades later, women were no better off than when the treaty had not yet been signed. A female could not inherit property nor could she open a bank account without the consent of the husband.

To show that it was breaking away from the past, Rwanda created the Gender Monitoring Office in 2003 and from that day it has not looked back. Exactly 37 years after the country signed the CEDAW treaty, today it can proudly say that it is walking the talk.

Saudi Arabia signed the treaty in 2003, but it is only now that it is slowly easing the tight grip of strict gender segregation, but there are more countries that signed at the same time as Rwanda and they fare no better.

But downtrodden women should not just sit down and fold their arms in despair. If their countries have failed to honour their side of the bargain, it should be up to them to take matters into their hands. That is what one Saudi woman did when she defied the law and was arrested several times for driving, until the kingdom realised that it was being lured into unnecessary ridicule.