To say that 2013 wasn’t a women’s year would be a lie. From parliament to social welfare to empowering the girl child, Rwandan women have soared against all odds. Women Today’s Doreen Umutesi looks at some of the women and girls that have made a difference this year.
Women in parliament
This year, Rwanda broke its own world record of having the highest number of women in parliament in the world. The parliamentary elections held September 16, handed women an overwhelming majority the Lower House, an unprecedented 64 per cent.
This means Rwanda remains the only country in the world with a female dominated parliament, having first achieved the feat in the 2008 polls when women took up 56 per cent representation in the House of Representatives. Besides the 24 exclusive women seats (quota system), women also won 26 of the 53 openly competed for seats in the general election as well as one of the two slots reserved for the youth.
Observers attribute women’s impressive show in the elections to political parties’ decision to give both genders equal chances of making it to parliament as opposed to past tendencies when men would be given priority.
During the 2008-2013 parliamentary terms, Rwanda still had the highest number of women in parliament at 56% in the Chamber of Deputies.
And, like the Second Lower House, the Third Chamber of Deputies also picked a woman as its speaker. Donatille Mukabalisa was overwhelmingly elected by both men and women as the new House chief.
Women activists said the fact that women did not only retain but actually increased their majority representation in the House points to the ever-growing confidence in women leadership.
Keeping girls in school
The year was also marked by interventions geared at ensuring the girls keep in school. One of the players in this endevour, the Sustainable Health Enterprise (SHE), started producing sanitary pads using banana fibers in Ngoma district, Eastern Province.
SHE developed the concept of a locally made banana fibre menstrual pad in Rwanda.
The Rwanda based company proved that girls and women in Rwanda are bound to lose at least five years of school or work over their lifetime because of menstruation.
With menstruation still a taboo subject in many places in Rwanda (open conversations are difficult), making menstrual hygiene manageable is still a huge challenge.
Most school girls and women have consistently faced the challenge of accessing sanitary pads because they are expensive with the cheapest going for Rwf500, so SHE seeks to transfer the technology of producing these pads using locally available materials.
Besides, the pads being helpful to women and girls every month, jobs are created because many women are involved in the manufacturing process.
The year 2013 also saw increased focus on creating an environment that’s conduncive for breastfeeding mothers and the newborns. Ejo Heza, literally translated as Bright Future, is a five-year-project funded by USAID in eight districts involved with several health campaigns, breastfeeding being one of them.
Women in Rwanda are entitled to a paid maternity leave of six weeks and are also given an hour (when they report back to work) to go and breastfeed. The year ends without a maternity fund which could allow working mothers to extend their maternity leave but it is hoped women will use their influence in parliament to ensure the fund is in place next year.
During the breastfeeding campaign, Jeanne D’Arc Nyirajyambere, Nutrition Advisor at Ejo Heza Programme, advised women to follow a baby’s feeding pattern.
“In the breastfeeding campaign, we sensitise mothers on the importance of breastfeeding despite their busy schedule. There are even positions that they can use to breastfeed while doing a specific house chore like cooking or peeling,” Nyirajyambere said.
Ejo Heza aims to improve the livelihoods and food consumption of 75,000 of Rwandans, particularly women, to build the capacity of low-income households to access financial services necessary to grow their enterprises while assisting financial service providers to develop and deliver effective products to the rural market.
The programme also supports financial literacy, integrates nutrition messaging and promotes kitchen gardening and improved food handling to support more nutritious diets.
In 2013, Girl Hub Rwanda is one of the organisations that continued to actively empower Rwandan girls, especially the Ni Nyampinga campaign. Ni Nyampinga represents the beautiful girl inside and out; as well as making good decisions. This saying in Kinyarwanda defines successful girls as doers and leaders in their community.
Ni Nyampinga amplifies a shared positive identity for girls, among girls themselves.
The Ni Nyampinga magazine and radio show provide a platform and opportunities for girls to learn, connect, and explore. It’s a platform for her voice because Ni Nyampinga generates energy around girls, raising the visibility of her distinct value within society at large. When she values herself and when her gatekeepers value her, she isn’t the only one who benefits from her fulfilled potential. She is the greatest untapped driver of social and economic growth of Rwanda.
Women in business
In 2013, Rwandan women continued to embrace activities that were historically considered masculine.
Members of Kayonza Twihangire Imirimo Cooperative (KATWICO), literally translated as ‘Kayonza District Job Creators Cooperative, established an initiative that makes bricks making them part of the brick-making business which has traditionally been a male dominated business.
The 18 member cooperative attributes its success to Women for Women International, especially with the construction and establishment of the Women’s Opportunity Centre (WOC) in Kayonza town because the bricks used in the construction were made by KATWICO.
The Women’s Opportunity Centre (WOC) which opened on June 28, 2013 aims at improving the socio-economic conditions of women, families, and the community in Kayonza district.
The WOC offers training courses and opportunities for employment and income generation activities for women.
The training courses include financial literacy training, business mentoring, agri-business support, access to financial services, and support to cooperatives.
Maria Yohana, the composer of the famous song, Intsinzi bana b’u Rwanda, was voted the 2013 Mother of the Year.
At the age of 70, Maria Yohana who is considered to be the icon of Rwandan music, proved that she is still an idol when she was crowned Mother of the Year at the inaugural Mother’s Day dinner gala at Kigali Serena Hotel on May 12, 2013.
She also released her 13-track album i titled “Intsinzi, Intego ni Imwe” on July 5th, 2013.
Even though she didn’t win it, Knowless, real name Jeanne d’Arc Ingabire Butera, was the only girl who came so close to winning this year’s Primus Guma Guma competition. She beat many male counerparts and went on to snatch third place and for that reason, she stood out this year.
Women and ICT
This year, Girls in ICT Rwanda took their campaigns to schools.
While carrying out school visits, girls in ICT members spoke to teenage girls and encouraged them to consider ICT as a career option and helped them understand and appreciate the importance of developing ICT skills in any career.
Girls in ICT Rwanda is made up of about fifteen girls with a mission to encourage more girls to take on courses in Science and Information Communication and Technology (ICT.)
Akaliza Keza Gara, a member of Girls in ICT said government continued to support initiatives that empower women in ICT.
“One of our main goals is to encourage more girls offering ICT courses to join Girls in ICT Rwanda. When I talk to young girls, a lot of them say that they see it as a man’s field because people we see in the media involved with ICT initiatives are often men. Even when they go to school they are surrounded by men so the girls tend to lose interest because they feel they are the odd ones,” Akaliza explained.
Women in social welfare initiatives
This year, Anita Kobusingye established Lighthouse Children’s Home, a home to 12 orphans. The home, situated in Nyagatare in the Eastern Province, provides a warm and loving environment for former street children that were living in poverty in nearby Nyagatare villages.
Sarah Mukunde is the eldest child at Lighthouse Children’s home and is currently in Primary Six. “I’m a student at Good Foundation Centre for Education and I’m happy that I’m a candidate. When I grow up I want to become an ambassador for Rwanda,” Mukunde explained.
The 13-year-old also revealed that she is grateful for having Kobusingye in her life. “I always pray for her that as our mother may she be blessed because she has changed our lives. I love her so much and I thank God that she saved our lives. I was living a meaningless life but today I go to school and I have a home and a family thanks to her,” Mukunde said.