She stands at the edge of the wall under construction, bends a bit and uses her eyes to see whether it has been done properly. Not satisfied with what she has seen, Umunyana picks a square (instrument that measures angles of buildings under construction) and places it along the wall.
After the exercise, she summons the masons and is seen giving them instructions as she points to a section of the newly built wall. Umunyana is one of the hundreds of Rwandan women that have ‘invaded’ the construction sector.
Traditionally, women were barred from doing certain kinds of jobs and their roles were clearly defined, particularly those that had to do with childcare and housework. A few could be teachers, nurses, or performed other ‘soft’ roles where they were mainly assistants or auxiliary staff. Not anymore. The reasons for the shifting gender roles are as many as there are actors.
Women are now a common sight at road construction projects, or new housing estates, doing a range of work from casual to masonry work. Others are carpenters and plumbers. Most of these women trained on the job and are not necessarily professionals in those fields. These females working in male dominated field (construction) have even proved to be more efficient than men, but challenges abound.
Ernestine Nyakurama, a casual worker at building project in Kimihurura, Gasabo District, has been doing construction work for the past three years. She says the job has helped her improve the welfare of the family.
“I wanted to supplement my husband’s efforts as he was earning peanuts from his job… we lacked most of the basic needs at home because the money was too little,” says the 32-year-old resident of Kicukiro.
“At first, I was reluctant and afraid of what people would say, but now I am used to the work.” The mother of three says the first days at work were hard.
“I could only work half-day because it was tiresome, especially ferrying building materials. I am happy that I persevered because the family’s welfare has improved and we are able to provide for all our needs and save some little money,” says Nyakurama.
Nyakurama earns Rwf2,500 daily, and most of the money caters for the needs of her children, like clothing and food.
“I save a small portion of the earnings to safeguard the future of my children, especially my one-year-old daughter who will be starting school in two years,” she says.
For Patricia Uwizeyimana from Kimironko, joining the construction sector was not as easy as she had thought, taking four months to get used to the new job. She says she started as an offloader, earning just Rwf1,500 per day.
Uwizeyimana says she is now being paid Rwf3,000 daily, of which she saves Rwf1,500.
“I am saving the money so that I can accumulate enough capital to start my own business. I can’t work in this field for long since it requires a lot of energy. So, I will use the savings to open up a milk bar and canteen in my neighbourhood,” says the mother of four.
She says part of her earnings caters for foodstuff and other basic needs of the family, while that of her husband is used to pay rent and fees for their two school-going children.
At only four months at a construction site, 24-year-old Angelique Uwineza from Kacyiru is the “new kid on the block”. The single mother says she was forced to get a job as a casual worker at the site to raise money to cater for her one-year-old child. “I had no option after the father of my child abandoned me as soon as he realised I was pregnant…I was forced to look for any available source of income to keep us going,” Uwineza says.
Construction jobs have brought mixed fortunes for the women. Though jobs have significantly improved their livelihoods, the women say they face numerous challenges daily, which affect their performance. Some of these challenges encountered result from the fact that they are women, a gender some uninformed people still think is inferior.
“However much we work hard, some of our male colleagues never appreciate what we do. They still feel we are inferior and, therefore, can’t match their abilities,” says Nyakurama.
She adds that this affects the self-esteem and dampens their morale. Nyakurama lauds her supervisors for being supportive, understanding and fair when dealing with women workers at the site.
However, Uwizeyimana says women are still discriminated against , especially in terms of pay. She says male workers, including casual and qualified staff, always earn more compared to their women counterparts.
She notes that women earn Rwf2,500 per (where she works), while men doing similar get double the amount for a day’s work. Uwizeyimana says this has made some women to quit their jobs as they felt unfairly treated. She, however, says this disparity happens in some specific construction area, adding that the supervisors reserve the right to decide on how much any of the site workers is paid.
Uwizeyimana adds that society still have negative perception about women doing ‘men’s work’. She says the women are called all sorts of derogative names “because of the kind of work we are engage in”.
Vanessa Simbi, an engineer and a young entrepreneur, says women can do anything so long as they are passionate about it.
“What men can do, women can even do better… This has been proven in business, leadership and other fields that were hitherto dominated by men,” says the owner of Archgrid Consultants, an engineering consultancy firm.
She urges men and supervisors at sites to encourage and support women to bring the best out of them.
Hamza Kalori, a supervisor at a construction site in Kimihurura, argues that women get tired easily, and spend a lot time resting. “This is why we pay them less money,” he says.
Kalori, however, says to avoid such situations, women are assigned to tasks that do not require a lot of energy, “but we pay them less for these kinds of jobs.”
Women builders contributing to national devt
Justine Murhula, an engineer
After the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, the country started rebuilding destroyed infrastructure. That’s why many women will not mind doing jobs that come their way. They do it to develop the country.
Yvonne Uwimana, a nurse
This shows how women have stopped relying on handouts from their husbands, and doing everything possible to make their own money. These women need encouragement and support from society.
Freedom Kabarere, a lawyer
The perception of women in construction has changed. There is equality for both sexes in the society. For instance, girls are now being encouraged to take sciences in schools, and women being given leadership positions in different organisations.
Compiled by Lydia Atieno