KIGALI–Senator Aloisea Inyumba takes great pride in the fact her small country has the most women parliamentarians in the world. With women holding 48.8 per cent of parliamentary seats, Rwanda is at the top of a UN ranking of female representation – a slot formerly held by Sweden.
In putting so many female faces in government, Rwanda, with a long history of male domination and chauvinism – has done something many political activists groups and feminists in Canada have been working toward for years but have so far failed to achieve.
One of the key reasons why there is such a strong female representation in Rwanda’s parliament, says Inyumba, is a system called proportional representation.
(Ontario, with a history of having few women in government, has included a referendum in the October election asking voters if they would support a form of proportional representation.)
Inyumba, a former cabinet minister in this central African nation, is astounded that only 21 per cent of Canadian MPs are women and, in Ontario, women hold only 25 per cent of the Legislature’s 103 seats.
“Perhaps the women in Canada should consult with us,” she jokes over coffee early one morning at a restaurant just up the street from her senate office.
“Our secret is, we remain focused. If it’s about a woman’s agenda, (then) it’s a national agenda.”
“Here, it’s about people and service. Women and children are the majority in our communities. You can’t talk about good politics unless the real stakeholders are involved.”
“It’s as simple as that. It’s about equal participation and it’s about opportunities for all.”
Tragically, women have had an opportunity to come to the fore because so many men were slaughtered.
A Genocide in the spring of 1994 that killed between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus was the culmination of decades of hate campaigns and discrimination against the minority Tutsis.
In its wake, the country had to rebuild everything from governance to agriculture and health policy.
So the new prominence of women has its roots in both political expediency and strong commitment to a cause, Inyumba says.
After the Genocide, the population was predominately female.
A demographic study in 1997 to 1998 found 63 per cent of the workforce aged 18 and older were women.
Many were politically savvy, having worked on the front lines for the now-ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, but MP Julianna Kantengwa notes that women in parliament are a force that crosses party lines.
She links it to the atrocities of the Genocide and an attitude of “never again.”
“I thank God many people survived in staying sane to drive the country forward,” says Kantengwa, who worked with and counselled women who had been raped, infected with HIV and then forced to watch their husbands tortured and murdered.
Inyumba says it has really been a miracle that women have come together in parliament without ethnic differences dividing them.
“People need to know where we’ve been to appreciate where we are today. This is a paradise to us.
“It’s the first time we have Hutus and Tutsis (women) sitting together and talking about poverty. Women talking about development. It used to be very partisan.”
A recent debate over inheritance and succession laws illustrates the effect of women lawmakers.
Traditionally, land passed from father to son. If there was no son, a brother’s son would inherit.
A proposed law calling for succession rights to go to a daughter as well as a son drew objections from several male MPs.
But the women fought back loud and long, says Kantengwa, a member of parliament since 1999 and the vice-president of the agriculture commission.
Women not only got together and mobilized a strong protest in the House, but they also called on an advocacy group, Pro-Femmes, to come out and help.
The day the bill was debated, the women packed the legislature, making their voices heard. The bill passed.
Besides parliament, President Paul Kagame’s government has women well-represented in the senate (35 per cent) and in cabinet (34 per cent).
Inyumba smiles as she talks about the power of women and the strategies they are already developing for the 2008 election.
And the men, she says conspiratorially, they don’t even know it.
In Rwanda, a task force was established in 2000 to write a new constitution. The result, which was adopted in May 2003, has gender equality as one of its primary principles.
Inyumba explains that the constitution guarantees 24 seats in the parliament to women – only women are allowed to vote for these positions – and another 53 seats are filled using proportional representation.
But 30 per cent of the nominees to fill those 53 seats must be women. Two other seats are set aside for youth and the disabled.
Which is why, following the October 2003 elections, women held 39 out of the 80 seats in parliament. It’s a result that Western feminists can only dream of.
The constitution also guarantees that women hold six out of 20 seats in the senate and make up 30 per cent of political appointments to “decision-making bodies.”
So, Inyumba says, the minister of gender and family is a woman and women hold portfolios in education, labour, international relations and the environment.
The auditor general is a woman, as is the governor of the Bank of Rwanda, the head of the National Insurance Corporation and the head of the Rwanda Revenue Authority.
Rwanda is among several African nations – including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – that have a system of reserved or quota seats for women in their constitutions.
But none have been so startling as the results in Rwanda.
“Our president and our party has a lot of respect for women,” says Environment Minister Patricia Hajabakiga, who entered politics after the Genocide.
Hajabakiga grew up in Tanzania as a Rwandan refugee and came to Canada, earning a master’s in environmental management at York University in 1991.
She returned to Rwanda on July 10, 1994 with her husband and two children.
By that November, she was sitting in parliament as a member for the Rwandan Patriotic Front and her family had grown to include 15 more children – orphans and members of her husband’s family who had lost their parents in the Genocide.
She has – as do Inyumba and Kantengwa – close ties to Kagame and says he firmly supports the new role for women.
“The president believes you can’t do anything by leaving behind more than 50 per cent of the population,” she says.
“It wasn’t just men who fought in the war. It was also girls and women who were behind the Rwandan struggle.
And the work the women did after the Genocide demonstrates that, without women, you can’t run this society.”
Despite critics suggesting that Kagame rules the country with an iron first, these women believe they are having a real impact.
Kagame listens to women MPs, senators and cabinet minister, Inyuma says.
“We are leaders,” she says. “People respect us. We’re not just here as a showcase. It’s about us.”
Voice of three women in government:
Patricia Hajabakiga, Environment Minister
Mention downtown Toronto to Patricia Hajabakiga and she laughs. She knows Bay and Charles Sts. really well.
She lived there while studying for her master’s degree in environmental management at York University.
Hajabakiga was born in Rwanda but fled with her mother in 1961 after her father was killed.
She grew up in Tanzania and has an undergraduate degree from the University of Dar Es Salaam. When the 50-year-old returned to Rwanda with her husband, she looked after 17 children, two of them her own.
Five years later, her husband died, leaving her to look after all of them alone.
Hajabakiga served in parliament in the transitional government before becoming minister of the environment after the 2003 election.
Her biggest accomplishment, she believes, is putting the environment on the agenda in Rwanda and banning the use of plastic bags.
Julianna Kantengwa Member of Parliament
Julianna Kantengwa grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. Her parents fled Rwanda in 1959-60 and made their way on foot to western Uganda and what they hoped would be an end to persecution.
She studied veterinary medicine in Uganda and began working for the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Back in her homeland after the Genocide, she worked with Save the Children for three years.
In May 1999, she joined parliament as part of the transitional assembly. Four years later, the Rwandan Patriotic Front included her among its nominees for parliament and she was elected.
Initially this mother of four worked on the social affairs commission, but now is vice-president of the agricultural commission. It’s a better fit, Kantengwa says.
“In my commission as a woman, I am as powerful as my personality.
If you’re a weak personality, you’re weak – whether you’re male or female.”
Aloisea Inyumba Senator
Aloisea Inyumba, a 42-year-old mother of two, began her career as a social worker, after obtaining a degree from Makerere University in Uganda.
Her family sought refuge there after her father was killed in a massacre in 1964.
In the 13 years since the Genocide, Inyumba has distinguished herself in government.
Inyumba’s area of expertise is women and children and, in 1994, she became the first cabinet minister of women; later, she served as minister for social affairs and gender.
“When I started as minister of women, I was in charge of women who were wounded, children who lost everything,” she says.
“It was like the whole country was broken.”
Inyumba also served as governor for Kigali province and as the head of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.
When her eight-year term as senator is up, she wants to do more advocacy work for women.
This articles was first published in Toronto Star on September 8, 2007
The writer is staff reporter with the Toronto Star. She was in Rwanda recently as part of a Rwanda Canada Initiative