Ending Special Status for Women: Too Early to Contemplate?

RECENTLY ONE of our local radio stations aired a story I found rather interesting. What made it interesting is that it went against the grain on an important issue of our time: Civil society groups in Rwanda want the government to rescind the law that sets aside 24 special seats for women in parliament in future elections.
Lonzen Rugira
Lonzen Rugira

RECENTLY ONE of our local radio stations aired a story I found rather interesting. What made it interesting is that it went against the grain on an important issue of our time: Civil society groups in Rwanda want the government to rescind the law that sets aside 24 special seats for women in parliament in future elections. It is a point well worth raising and a debate around worth having. The idea, it seems, is that it is high time women graduated to competing for political office on equal terms with men. A pertinent question, though, is: are we there yet? 

Clearly, it would be impossible to do justice to that question without going back to the reasons why women were reserved special seats in parliament in the first place. A few points are worth noting. 

For one thing, today, as in times long gone, women suffer discrimination. It is clear that their collective interests have always been marginal to those of their male compatriots. It is by now well established that this has hampered human progress. The history of the human race has been one whereby intellectual, legal, and moral systems have justified discrimination against women, mainly by ascribing distinct gender roles to men and women. 

And the specific history of Rwanda shows how legal impediments were once a tool for excluding women from property ownership. Despite its manifest links to livelihoods in our predominantly agrarian society, women, the main producers of food, could not own land. As for access to financing, lack of collateral, mostly land, made that impossible for the majority. And when it comes to household responsibilities, women carry the burden disproportionately, with household chores and farming to feed their families reserved for them. 

However, the Genocide changed most of this. One of its main consequences was to serve as a catalyst for the breakdown of traditional gender roles. In its aftermath, with well over two-thirds of households headed by women, the practical reality required them to do things that hitherto only men did. And as things normalised, it became unthinkable that women could be sent ‘back to the kitchen.’ 

Readers of this column may recall a discussion where I pointed out that a movement to preserve these gains and to hold on to this space became more assertive and confident in articulating the rights of women. Its embodiment was the late Aloysea Inyumba.   

I pointed out that these efforts were being helped by a political commitment underlain by a deep understanding of the importance of women as equal partners in efforts to drive socioeconomic progress. Those spearheading them understood well that attitudes that exclude women from meaningful participation are as myopic as they are anti-development. 

What followed were changes seeking to correct the systemic defects blocking women’s progress. That these were considered ‘structural’ obstacles required that legal and political frameworks and processes be restructured. The outcomes are well known: large numbers of women in parliament, the cabinet and discriminatory laws removed from the statute books. And so women earned a front seat at the heart of decision-making in this country. 

And now civil society activists say enough is enough. They want the government to do away with the 24 seats set aside for women in parliament. Indeed, if we were to go by the logic for setting aside these positions, then the assumption made by civil society is that women have arrived. 

The problem with such an argument is that it neglects the secondary bargain this pioneer group is supposed to deliver in order for their elevation to have a wider societal impact: To empower fellow women across the country.  

In other words, ending the marginalisation of women was less about women as such and more about the impact their empowerment would have on others, and its potential as a positive outcome for society. The implied task was therefore empowering that anonymous woman in Kinigi or Kirehe. 

There are studies that continue to show that women, mostly in rural areas, work harder yet are poorer when compared with their male counterparts. In addition their access to, and control of, resources remains lower still, despite their empowerment having positive socioeconomic outcomes such as improved nutrition and access to health and education. 

What is important, therefore, is to link the large numbers of women in key positions of decision-making to the impact on society. That happens easily once one connects the empowerment of women in parliament to the fate of the anonymous woman in rural Gatsibo. 

There is, clearly, more work to be done. Which leads me to the same conclusion from a while back: What is needed is for the right actors to lead from the front.

 

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