Rwanda’s transformation in gender equality trascends national achievements and provides lessons for other countries struggling to overcome histories of gender oppression.
The message was delivered by First Lady Jeannette Kagame at an event in New York City on Tuesday.
The event, attended by more than 200 women business leaders and celebrities, was hosted by Grace Hightower De Niro, a philanthropist and wife of Academy Award winner Robert De Niro.
The event was dedicated to Mrs Kagame for her role in promoting women’s rights and also in celebration of women leaders worldwide.
“We understood early on that similar to ethnic polarisation, gender inequality in our society was both systematic and systemic (after an entire system). The will of the government and women empowerment had to be inextricably tied. Dismantling structural barriers was a necessary pre-requisite to gender equality,” the First Lady said.
“From being considered a quiet force, some women turned into villains, others were victims and at the same time victors. Today, women have become a voice of reconciliation and peace building,” she said in reference to Rwandan women in the days preceding and during the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Mrs Kagame narrated that in 1994, among the villains were women such as former minister, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko.
“She ironically was the minister of women’s affairs, yet she ordered the rape of thousands of Tutsi women. She even went as far as forcing her own son to rape,” Mrs Kagame said.
Nyiramasuhuko was the first woman to be tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity–by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Her daughter-in-law, Beatrice Munyenyezi, was also in 2013 convicted of similar crimes and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a court in New Hampshire, US.
The First Lady also spoke about other women who were directly involved in the Genocide, such as Valérie Bemeriki, a presenter on the infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) that used to reveal the hideouts of Tutsi to the militia.
Picking up the pieces
She also mentioned nuns such as Consolata Mukangango and Julienne Mukabutera, who were found guilty of participating in the massacre of more than 7,600 people at a convent in Southern Rwanda.
“On the contrary, not all the nuns were evil,” Mrs Kagame said, adding that some were heroines–like Sister Felicite Semakuba whose brother was a colonel in the genocidal army.
“She hid and protected desperate Tutsi, helped some of them cross the border to safety and lost her life trying to save them. Rwandan women who survived the Genocide saw this horror and went through immeasurable anguish,” she said.
“Genocide was the culmination of decades of a divisive leadership that mismanaged our diversity… but a few good men and women could not bear to just stand by and watch. Women took up arms and fought bravely alongside their brothers to free Rwanda of genocidal forces.”
The First Lady said while some nursed wounded soldiers on the battlefield, others kept the supplies replenished.
“Many more unsung heroines raised funds, prayed, wrote songs and prepared meals to keep the spirit of the liberators alive,” she said, adding that in the aftermath of the 1994 slaughter, many men had died or were in prison for their crimes, leavingwomen to pick up the pieces.
“Since they were the ones left, they garnered enough strength and stamina to soothe the broken hearts of their orphaned children, to assist their helpless widowed sisters, and to shoulder the responsibility of mending the fabric of their broken society,” said the First Lady.
“They had to forgive those who had killed their husbands, brothers and children; they had to unite and live side by side with the very people who had wiped out their families. The choice was between forgiving the unforgivable and self-destructing with anger.”
Rwanda has the highest legislative representation of women in the world, at 64 per cent, while 40 per cent of Cabinet and judiciary positions are held by women.
In 2011, Mrs Kagame launched the Rwanda Women Leaders Network, through which women in politics, private businesses, NGOs and faith-based organisations put efforts together to cater for the rights of women and girls.