Mention gender equality and women empowerment and the immediate thought – in the popular imagination – is of women in parliament and other important decision–making places. You will get numbers and comparative figures of women in such places in different countries.
A league table will even be drawn. This is true, of course. And Rwanda is number one on the league table in terms of women’s representation in parliament
If this was the measure of progress women have made in this country, we would sit on our laurels and congratulate ourselves on the tremendous achievemnets we have made.
But there is more to it as we were reminded by an international conference on gender equality and women’s empowerment that took place in Kigali last week.
It is not just the elite women who have gained from the drive to equality and empowerment. Even the women in the villages, in the less fashionable parts of our towns, those who are barely visible and whose story is often untold are making important strides.
Participants at the Kigali conference did the usual things. They presented papers. They discussed and debated and made important resolutions. But they did not pack their bags immediately the resolutions were read and fly off to the next conference.
They did more than that. They left the comfort of their hotel rooms and conference halls and went out to see where ordinary Rwandan women are making a difference in their lives and that of the nation.
This is the place where the impact of the policies on gender issues can be really measured – whether the lives of the majority of women of this country who are not in formal employment have improved.
Some of them went to visit women’s cooperative societies and associations. Women have organised themselves in cooperatives to farm, make crafts, trade or provide other services.
The stories of these women, often who have not gone to school (or not gone far enough), or who are widows or elderly were heart-warming to the visitors.
Here were women taking on the unusual roles of bread winner for their families and doing so successfully and making a profit. Here were women whose lives had visibly improved.
Most of them had never heard of the many resolutions of the many conferences on women’s empowerment. But they were the living proof of the outcome of those meetings.
At the Women for Women centre, for instance, they heard testimony of how members were now able to plan the size of their families, provide better nutrition for their children, obtain credit to start small-scale projects and now have better relations with their husbands so that families live more harmoniously.
Others visited a women’s cooperative bank. The story of rural women making savings and being able to borrow from their bank and invest in seemingly simple projects, but whose impact is enormous is another of those successes we have taken for granted.
These successes are apparently invisible to the self-ordained critics of Rwanda. The women from around the world who were in Kigali last week saw what economic empowerment is and what it does for families.
I am sure they will say like Thomas, “I have seen and now I believe”.
This is where the results of empowerment show. It is where the battle against poverty is being fought and where it will be won. This is what the women who came to the conference saw – determined efforts to march away and farther from anything that will hold the women of Rwanda back.
We in Rwanda see these achievements everyday (except, of course, those who are wilfully blind). Stories of successful women farmers, traders and entrepreneurs abound. These are ordinary women, not those who turn up at the conferences,
They are not there yet, as President Paul Kagame pointed out at the official opening of the conference. He said that the struggle for gender equality does not end, that the sustainability of the gains made is important and therefore th struggle continues.
The rural women’s cooperative societies, and the work of individual women in the provinces was evidence that they are aware of this.
They will maintain the effort they are making. In any case nothing is more motivating than success. As they say, success breeds more success.
At the time the women were here, there was the official opening of the police hospital in Kacyiru. This was a significant event because the hospital has a special centre that addresses the issue of gender-based violence.
The centre provides counselling, treatment and legal services for the victims of gender-based violence. This is perhaps one of the last obstacles to the full enjoyment of equal rights.
The women who came from around the globe for the conference have since left. The women of Rwanda will carry on their work and continue to move forward and inspire the rest of us and earn everyone’s admiration.
Again the president captured it very well in his remarks at a dinner where he was also awarded a prize for his work in the empowerment of women.
“One cannot help but marvel at what the women of this nation have achieved, how they carry their responsibilities so gracefully and their commitment to building a better Rwanda”, the president said. He added that the optimism and consistency with which they tackle important tasks, which often no one will see or thank them for, is inspirational.
Participants at the conference saw this and must surely have also been inspired.