• Almost destroyed by genocide, Rwanda is reshaping its future with the world’s first women-led government
Last month, Rwanda became the first country in the world whose women MPs outnumber men: 56 per cent of seats went to female candidates. To outsiders schooled in the stereotypes of dominant African male patriarchy, the election results came as a surprise.
But in Rwanda, where women have, in a few short years, shot from being oppressed and undervalued to holding a raft of senior administrative positions, it was expected.
The last elections, in 2003, when women won almost 49 per cent of seats, had already pushed the country to the top of the league table of gender parity in world parliaments.
Britain’s House of Commons, by contrast, languishes 58 places lower, with just 19.5 per cent of seats held by women, behind Ethiopia, Argentina and Pakistan.
“We are always being asked why we are first,” said Speciose Mukandutiye, president of the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians, with a mischievous grin.
“That’s the wrong question. Why not ask why the rest of the world is not here yet? More than half of the world is women. If democracy really works in those countries in the West, why are their parliamentarians not more than half women?”
On the face of it, Rwanda’s leap from the darkest of days 14 years ago, when a tenth of its population was wiped out in 100 days of slaughter, to its current proud position seems a miracle of nationwide reconciliation.
Women have long participated in that healing at every level. The chief justice of the supreme court is a woman, Aloysie Cyanzayire. So is the acting commissioner general of police, the mayor of the capital Kigali, the president of the post-genocide village courts system known as gacaca, and several senior ministers, including the foreign minister.
“You cannot forget where we have come from,” said Juliana Kantengwa, 49, a senior MP from the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party, the former rebel army that invaded to end the genocide and which has held a tight grip on power ever since.
“Women in positions of leadership in a country like Rwanda are better able to nurture reconciliation than men. In situations of conflict, women move more to pacification than men – this is natural.
“The whole gacaca process rests on people coming out and telling the truth. We’ve seen mothers standing in public and telling their sons, please, say what you did or else I will say it. The mothers, sisters, wives – they push their men to tell the truth.”
Rwanda’s men, at least those who took part in the genocide, cannot do this, Mrs Kantengwa said, because, “unfortunately, in most cases, the men did these things together”.
Even at the most local level, women are for the first time taking public positions of responsibility.
At the end of a dirt track an hour’s drive east of the capital, Jeanne Murekatete, 29, sat on a hard wooden bench in her husband’s one-room pub as the shouts of children playing drifted through the open door.
A farmer of cassava and beans and a mother of four sons, she is now also the first woman to be elected head of the local council in the village of Musha.
“I am not an educated woman, but Rwanda now is changing. People here, they know that a woman is the one who has always kept the family strong and safe and they want women to do the same for their communities,” she said.
“Men are too impatient and hasty. Women listen more, they talk to everybody. In Rwanda, that is very important. If we stop ignorance and bitterness at the local level, this will move up all across the country.”
Half an hour back towards Kigali, as she sat having her hair straightened in a tiny roadside salon called Chez Anita, Florence Umutoni talked of this new Rwanda.
“In my grandmother’s time, women were supposed to be in the house and not talk publicly,” the 25-year-old said. “Now the young girls see all these women in power and
realise they can do anything. To succeed is no longer about physical force, it is about the force of your mind. We know we are capable of anything that men can do.”
It seems to be a Utopian model of gender equality, a test case of African development divorced from the stereotypes of male patriarchy that has so long ignored and undervalued the continent’s females.
But much of the success of Rwanda’s new ruling flows from a provision in the post-genocide constitution that at least 30 per cent of all administrative and government posts nationwide must go to them.
“It is true that without that political will, we would not have been able to come this far this quickly,” said Nura Nikuze, 42, one of the crop of fresh women MPs who will take their seats in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time on Monday.
“But the women of Rwanda, we are dynamic, we are decision-makers, we must participate in the development of our country. Before the 30 per cent law, we could not do that properly.”
Of the 80 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies, 24 are reserved for women who are indirectly elected after being nominated by provincial councils or civil society organisations.
Only the remaining 53 are directly elected from an open electoral playing field.
“We realised very early on that it was mathematically impossible to develop our country if we continued the historical mistake of excluding half of our potential workforce,” said Joseph Karemera, Rwanda’s ambassador to South Africa.
“You cannot expect things that entrenched in tradition to change overnight; you have to give it a bit of a push. We had to put the laws in place that would give our women the confidence to pull themselves out of their historical oppression.”
It is difficult to fathom whether the entire country supports this type of pervasive government intervention… It is clear that to question such policies is to question the development of the country and to raise the spectre of disunity that eventually led to the horrors of 1994.
“This is not a society at ease with open discussion about its problems,” said Jeanne de Chantal, a radio ‘’agony aunt’’ on Kigali’s most popular independent station, Contact FM.
“I have had complaints from men on the show when they say that in helping women improve, they are losing their leadership in the family, in the community. I don’t know that this country’s men are really ready to work like that with women, without feeling frustration.”
But Rwanda’s pro-women push is not about forcing men into the back seat, said Mrs Kantengwa, the senior RPF woman MP. “We know we have different roles in society, we just think that those roles should be reflected in the parliament and thus in the legislation we pass.”
She said that women legislators focus better on the fine details of draft laws, while men grasp ‘the bigger picture’, adding that several new laws introduced during the last parliament of 2003 to 2008 reflect the balanced nature of the chamber.
“These included a law on gender-based violence and one that for the first time lets parents nominate their daughters, not just their sons, as their heirs and successors.
“We do not want to frustrate our men and push them into submission while we run the show,” said Mrs Kantengwa with a chuckle.
“We want to safeguard against anything that would make men think that we’re taking over. We’re not taking over; we’re just coming along to join them.”