International Women’s day comes with exciting stories about women’s hopes, dreams and achievements. In a country where women have been elevated to the top of political power, at 64% of the parliamentarians, Rwanda leads the world. To give some perspective, the gap is big with Bolivia in the number 2 position (53%) followed by Andora and then Cuba at 48.9%.
Other countries in the top 10% are the Seychelles at number 5 with 43.8%; Sweden, Senegal, Finland, Ecuador and South Africa follow from 6th to 10th position respectively. Not the typical countries you might expect; except for perhaps Finland, as the Scandinavian countries often top the global lists on economic, social, human rights and quality of life issues.
Where are our neighbours, and what about the big hitters? Tanzania comes in 23rd position, with Uganda nipping at its heels in number 24 with 35%. China is ranked 53, the United Kingdom 56 and the United States at 72 is one rank behind Kenya with 19.7% women in parliament coming in at position 71. Wealthy Quatar brings up the bottom of the rankings, at number 137; a position it shares with 4 island states.
What would you say to a rural woman that feminism means to her, asked a colleague of a gender specialist. The specialist did not have an immediate response. The question hints at the perception that feminists are women who attend international conferences and hate men yet achieve little, if anything, for their fellow peasant women.
On reflecting on this question, I thought of another story that had been told to me. A company that has gone to a rural area to use the settings for a project decided to compensate the community that had hosted them. They gave books to the local school and other contributions.
But they wanted to do more. They decided to relieve the women’s workload by giving the community donkeys and a cart to help the women collect water. This would mean that only 2 women would go to the river, load the cart with water and bring it back to the community.
The company thus asked that the road be cleared and smoothed to make it easier for the donkey cart to traverse the poor quality road. The elders retreated to consult with the community and came back to say there was a problem as the women had not yet returned from the river to do the clearing work. Confounded that it was not the men’s job, the company decided they would hire some tractors and add this to the company’s overall contribution. They shared the decision with the elders who went back to tell the community. There was commotion, raised voices and a general air of discontent. The elders came back and told the company they must leave immediately; they did not want their ideas or their donkeys or their water cart and containers.
Before the company left, they pulled aside one of their close collaborators from the community and asked what they had done to be virtually chased out of town. The man explained that the community had become concerned that if the women no longer had to fetch water from the river, they would be sitting idle in the village causing the men trouble. The men thus wanted to have nothing to do with such a disruptive idea.
The story, which I was told was a true anecdote, made me think of the early days when women sought to be educated, go into the work force, or get the vote. Switzerland only gave women the right to vote in 1971 – compare this to Sweden that granted limited voting to women in 1718.
Rwandan women’s suffrage was in 1961. Saudi Arabia is to introduce it in 2015.
There were fears of the risk that feminists empowering women would have negative consequences for society. Yet we now know that educated women have healthier children, for example. Women in paid work, or who have control of the family money, are more likely than men to spend their money on their children’s food, healthcare and education as well as other goods for the household and the family’s overall benefit.
Healthy, educated girls grow up to become more productive adults that are better equipped to contribute to society’s economic growth and well-being.
And so it is not only encouraging, but critical, that there are initiatives such as the First lady’s Imbuto Foundation to “ think of ways in which we can engage and inspire... young girls”. The newly constituted “New Faces New Voices” Rwanda Chapter has been recently created to counteract the “high mortality rate of women-owned businesses” by advocating for women’s financial empowerment, access to financial services, and skills development.
Risky disruption! Maybe. But worth every penny.
Currently based in Rwanda, the writer comments about people, organizations and countries whose stories create a chrysalis for ideas.