President Kagame to Rwandan women: make the numbers count

The place and role of women in society has been a subject of debate for a long time, going back even before their demand for equal suffrage at the turn of the last century.

It has, at different times, been about leadership positions in politics and business, their place in academia, equal pay, freedom from sexual abuse, and many other rights.

In our time and on our continent, the gender parity discussion has been about empowering women to acquire more education, participate actively in public affairs, and have a more visible and recognised role in the ownership and production of wealth, among other things.

A number of African countries have made positive steps in this direction. But because this sort of empowerment remains the exception rather than the rule, it still draws wide commentary.

And so when on October 16 Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reshuffled his cabinet, the point that women comprised fifty percent was top news.

Their number seemed to attract more attention than their ability, which is perhaps why he had to explain the reasons for his choice.  He said part of the reason for their inclusion was that they are less corrupt (and presumably more efficient).

Most people will agree with that, although some in places like Kenya might beg to differ considering the number of high profile women there charged with corruption. But even there, that number is much less compared to that of men charged with similar offences.

Not long after, President Paul Kagame reshuffled his cabinet following the departure of Ms Louise Mushikiwabo to head the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).

He too raised the number of women to fifty per cent.  He did not, however, have to offer an explanation for this decision.

Participation of women in decision making has been an accepted principle of governance in Rwanda for quite some time.

Their representation in parliament has been as high as 64% in the last parliament. They are now down to 61%.  We do not know the exact number of women CEOs or those in other top executive positions, perhaps because it has not attracted similar attention. But even from a cursory survey, it is high.

There is no doubt that these numbers have led to positive change. However, discussion about the extent of influence of women’s representation still goes on.

Questions continue to be asked about its impact on the lives of women in rural areas. There is evidence of general improvement in rural livelihoods.

But is this a result of having more women in leadership positions or is it due to general government policies? It is probably both. Still the questions linger.

Similar questions have been raised about the population’s state of nutrition in the country. Why does poor nutrition persist when we have more mothers in influential positions, including specifically in the agriculture and health sectors, and more enlightened women generally?

Despite government efforts and higher profile roles for women, gender-based violence has not been ended. Women still get battered, a few men too. You might, of course, argue that such cases have actually declined but remain visible precisely because of the efforts to fight them.

Human trafficking, although much less than happens in neighbouring countries, also continues. The most trafficked are women and sometimes the traffickers are women.

This is not to say that there has been no change in the lives of Rwandans resulting from its gender policies. It is only to say: more can and should be done.

These issues and the desired pace of change must have been at the back of President Kagame’s mind when he made comments about women’s representation during his address at the launch of the new judicial year last Friday. He urged them to solve these issues because this is one of the reasons for their being in those positions.

Numbers are usually a measure of quantity. But they can also translate into a measure of quality, which is the point President Kagame was making.

Make your representation transformative, he was telling them. Make your numbers count, he said.

Rwanda has been hailed for its enlightened approach to gender issues and the progress it has registered n this regard. But obviously change takes time to take hold.

It can be frustratingly slow when it concerns long-held beliefs and practices. But once it has started and gathered momentum as seems to be happening here, it can only go forward. Eventually the numbers will count.

Twitter: @jrwagatare

The views expressed in this article are of the author.