Rwanda’s rural women leading fight against poverty

The reporting that poverty has been declining in Rwanda over the years is not a statistical fallacy as some media outlets claimed recently; it is a reality backed by testimonies of actual Rwandans living that realism, in districts like Kirehe, Ngoma, and Nyaruguru.

I have spent this past week in those three districts which have some of the highest rates of poverty, according to the Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey 4 (EICV4) by the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).

From my observations and conversations with locals there, I saw and heard positive testimonies to the statistical reporting by NISR, that Rwanda is not only progressively ejecting household poverty but that women in rural areas are also firmly at the frontline of that fight.

This is not happening without effort. What I have seen and heard over the last five days is a result of the joint efforts of the Government of Rwanda and international development partners’ led initiatives, to empower Rwandans in rural areas to rise above poverty.

One such initiative is the Rural Women Economic Empowerment (RWEE), a programme that is jointly being implemented by several United Nations agencies in Rwanda, including World Food Programme (WFP), Food Agriculture Organization (FAO), IFAD and UN Women.

The idea behind RWEE is to give rural women the keys to opening the gate for their households out of poverty, closely working with local charity organizations such as Imbuto Foundation.

But why women?

In Rwanda, an estimated 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and women represent over 60 percent of the total labour force in the agricultural sector, and perform most of the farm work-related to ploughing, planting, weeding and harvesting.

However, their incomes often don’t correspond with the amount of effort they invest. In addition, agricultural services such as farm inputs and rural development loans are accessed primarily by men, according to National Bank of Rwanda reporting.

Rural men also have the nagging tendency to believe that an empowered woman is a bad idea that challenges their own position as head of the household; this for many years has sidelined rural women from actively participating in more meaningful economic activities.

But it appears that RWEE has ignited a revolution in Rwanda’s countryside, helping awaken rural women to their unutilized potential and giving them the inspiration to do more with themselves.

I began my three-leg tour with Kirehe district, located some 159km from the capital Kigali. The last time I was here was 2015, covering, on behalf of The New Times, the arrival of thousands of Burundian refugees at Mahama camp, in the wake of the political crisis in Bujumbura.

Four years later, progress is all I could see. The road to Kirehe is being widened to facilitate cross-border trade between Rwanda and East Africa, through the Tanzanian border at Rusumo.

Deep into the villages, water is still a problem as I could see long lines of yellow jerricans with locals waiting for their turn to draw water from the spring well.

It’s one area being addressed by RWEE, teaching women how to create rainwater banks in their homes, ensuring sustained supplies for weeks, for both human and domestic animal consumption.

The sight of new houses with shiny iron sheets is not uncommon here, complete with electricity, thanks to the government’s rural electrification programme, aimed at connecting the majority of rural households by 2020. You could sense the excitement of being recently connected to electricity by locals.

Most of them leave the lights on during the day, competing with the much brighter sunlight; this is obviously wastage of resources but it is something they will understand as their excitement wanes.

In one household I visited, I found a 29-year old widow who lost her husband to cancer, five years ago. She has refused to remarry and chose to focus on raising her two little children.

She is among the women here that, through RWEE, have been taught basic entrepreneurial skills, improved agricultural practice to ensure sustainable food production and group savings to enhance financial wellbeing.

Within their group saving schemes, rural women are now able to save as low as Rwf300 a week, building credit facilities from which they can borrow later, to start small home-based businesses such as poultry farming and tailoring; this way, mainstream banks can keep their money.

In Nyaruguru district, one women group has, using its group members’ savings managed to invest in a maize milling plant to process the corn grown by locals for a fee to get maize flour.

The realization by these rural women that they had in them the capacity to change their lives is something they note as the biggest benefit obtained from RWEE activities in these three districts.

The men are also gradually catching on, and starting to appreciate and voluntarily support their women’s economic empowerment to support household welfare.

“In the beginning, my husband seemed to question my motivation to become economically active but when he started to see the benefits, he’s now supportive,” one woman told me in Ngoma district.

Kirehe Vice Mayor for economic developmentJean Damascene Nsegiyumva told me that they are now receiving many voluntary applications from households seeking to move from category 1 poverty classification to second and third tiers, a result of improved incomes.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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