I have never been one to doubt or for that matter attempt to downplay the ability of a woman, and frankly, it gives me great joy to know that the majority of my compatriots share a similar state of mind when it comes to understanding the value of women in our society.
This mind-set is in part credit to my grandmother, who as a child, instilled in me the ideals of gender equality whereby it is necessary to recognise that we all have the ability to offer something for the greater good of our society regardless of our gender.
The other part is in acknowledgement of the current leadership’s values in championing women as not only equal members of our society but also as agents of development.
Nevertheless, aside from my upbringing, what does it really mean for society to champion women, and here I include girls as well, as equal members of our society? Are some of us just blindly following a ‘bandwagon’ of this movement or do we all understand and appreciate the notion of women empowerment?
To help understand the core elements behind this movement, it is important we first understand the meaning of women empowerment. Women empowerment, according to some experts in this field, refers the creation of an environment for women where they can make decisions of their own for their personal benefit as well as for society at large.
Others, however, add that women’s empowerment entails increasing the economic, social, and political strength of women, also pointing to gender equality as the major prerequisite required to achieve this empowerment.
Reasonable and fair, wouldn’t you say? Which makes me wonder why in so many other parts of the world including nations far afield and those close to home, this right to self-determination continues to be met with primitive silence as well as outright opposition, both of which combine ignorance with a primitive attitude of the highest calibre.
Notably, although in Rwanda we have made great strides in addressing the gender equality compared to almost any other nation worldwide, sometimes I get frustrated with two issues; first, I am frustrated with the persistent ignorance by some members of our society, albeit a minority, in undermining the value of women to our society.
Second, and equally important, is that frequently, I have been left bewildered to learn that although many understand and acknowledge the need to empower women, few comprehend that women empowerment isn’t an issue for women alone.
In fact, putting aside my frustrations, I strongly believe that women empowerment is a collective responsibility that should bring us altogether to complement the ongoing efforts by organisations such as Imbuto Foundation, Akilah Institute for Women, and by particular individuals like Rwanda’s First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, all of whom relentlessly continue to highlight the obvious; that indeed, women are important members of any society including ours, and that the sooner we all grasp this concept, the better-off we will become as a society and as individuals.
For instance, we can all start by first acknowledging that overall women have the potential to change their own status, their families’, as well as that of the communities in which they live. By status, I mean their status of value in our society which more often than not has gone unrecognized, undervalued and unnourished.
Equally, a number of studies point out a strong correlation between gender equality and economic growth. In fact, some evidence, including a study by Professor Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics, indicates that the more women are involved in education and employment, the greater it is likely that household poverty will decrease, thus impacting on the nation as a whole.
Similarly, with Rwanda being a prime example, evidence shows that women’s political empowerment, usually seen as political participation in decision-making gives them a voice in the policies that directly affect their lives.
An example of this is the recent bill passed by Parliament (where 64 percent of MPs are women), which articulates that mothers on maternity leave are entitled to earn full pay during maternity leave, thus allowing them to take time off and properly look after the new-born without financial worries.
Likewise, women’s economic empowerment, which entails women having the means to acquire and control the use of their resources, has the potential to lead to prosperity for families, communities and nations in general. Here, we should not forget that currently, women make up almost half of the world’s population, and that there economic inclusion in the labour force has the potential to improve production in various sectors.
By and large, the challenges preventing women from becoming wholly recognised as important members of our society extend beyond individuals – for example, there are institutional and systemic reasons why women in some societies cannot participate freely and add value to common purpose.
To break down these walls, it is necessary that individuals as well as institutions work hand in hand to reform the rules and laws, social norms, cultural beliefs or whichever institutions are inhibiting women’s participation across all levels. As individuals, we must begin by acknowledging the potential for growth and prosperity that can be achieved when women are included.