Pre-1994 Rwanda was a society that was not only discriminatory based on ethnicity and regions, it was also one that envisaged women as people in the background and that they would be kept out of the national life at whatever cost.
However, it was not for women emancipation that Major Beline Kayirangwa and hundreds of other teenage girls that decided to join the liberation struggle in 1990, rather it was the quest to have a place to call home, having been born in refuge.
When time came for the struggle to kick off, not even girls who society had probably viewed as naïve and faint-hearted were left behind, it was a community course.
Born at Ibuga refugee camp in Uganda where her family fled to in 1959, the conditions didn’t leave much to be optimistic about or look forward to.
“It got to that point where I felt that I could not go on living in a refugee camp while I had a country; I was Rwandan and deserved to be at home. The conditions in the camps were not conducive at all, other than being denied our rights as citizens to be in our country, there were education challenges as well as access to health care. Those were no conditions to grow up in, I had to join my brothers to fight for our rights,” Kayirangwa says.
Kayirangwa says that the combatants received and embraced everyone willing to play a part in the country’s liberation, there was no discrimination based on gender or experience. Everyone was equally important as they all had one goal — to see Rwanda free, she says.
Kayirangwa says that though the liberators came from different countries where they had been exiled, the cause to set the country free brought them together.
It is then that they were sent for basic military training, to ensure they get by during the struggle.
The greatest lesson she says she learnt from the military drills was discipline, something that was at the heart of the liberation campaign.
“The role of the women during the RPA struggle was to complement the efforts of our male counterparts. We were all part of a national calling to fight for our motherland, it was the only way for us to regain our citizenship or else we would end as refugees for the rest of our lives,” Kayirangwa says.
You would imagine that society tried to discourage women and girls from going into combat for fear of their vulnerability, but you would be wrong; their parents, elders and the rest of society did not discourage them from going ahead with the cause, if anything they gave them their blessings and accorded them the necessary support.
In every struggle or war, there are always casualties and pain. Death is not discriminatory or selective on the basis of gender, the liberation struggle was no different. Women were not spared either.
“At the time, I, like other girls didn’t think much about the future; it was the liberation that mattered. There were challenges though, many of them. I was young, I saw people dying, there was shock, pain, death, diseases and hunger. They were all around and few thought they would live to see the end of it,” she recalls.
Major Kayirangwa recalls off-head women and girls who gave their lives in the process of the struggle, some of them who she was in the same unit and passed away right before her eyes as she held their hands.
“Among them were late Goreti Kagoyire Rukotana, Beltlide Mukandereya Rukotana, Angelique Niyonshuti, and Mukakimenyi, to list a few. They gallantly fought and served on the frontline but never lived to see the victory,” Major Kayirangwa recalls.
As some women and girls were in the battle field, other served in other ways that were equally important in the liberation struggle. Others went to offer support services, such as combat support, logistical support and medical support which were highly necessary. This, too, was not left out for women; it was done by both men and women.
There is never a pretty sight during war; there is pain, disease, hunger, death, and shock, but Kayirangwa says that their dedication to the nation and to freedom transcended all the pain and challenges.
“Had we been receptive and accepted the status quo, there would have been no liberation or difference made. Had we not sacrificed our lives and accepted to take the risks to fight the oppressive regime, there would have been no liberation and the genocidal regime would still reign until today,” she says.
After the country had been liberated and secured, after Rwandans had celebrated their home coming and toasted to the good life ahead, the RPA, as the army was known then, did not leave in the cold its girls and women who had participated in the struggle.
They were incorporated into various roles depending on their qualifications and skills and some like Kayirangwa were facilitated to get back to school and continue with their studies.
Like men, some decided to quit the armed forces and went on to play other equally important roles in the country’s development.
“I stayed in active service because there were roles for women in the military, not only in junior positions but also decision making roles. The force was disciplined and though we had managed to liberate the country there were other roles like peacekeeping where we would be needed,” Major Kayirangwa explains.
Rwanda Defence Forces supported the women and girls to resume school and further their skills for them to be able to take on more roles in the country’s development.
“When I joined the army in 1990, I was just beginning my high school. I only continued my studies after the struggle and I now have a Bachelor of Arts Degree, and I recently completed my Senior Command and Staff course (graduated in May from Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama) from the Rwanda Defence Forces Command Staff College and now have a ‘PSC’ (past staff college) and soon I will be completing Masters in Security Studies”.
The modern day’s RDF still values and celebrates the role of women in their midst as they did 20 years ago. Women still have a role to play, whether as staff officers or in peace keeping efforts across the world, amongst other activities.
The RDF has also embarked on training women and girls in uniform so that they can assume decision making roles.
Kayirangwa served as a Military Observer in 2008 in south Dafur where they sought to bring two warring parties — Janjaweed and The Blacks — to a negotiating table after she had returned from a course in the Netherlands.
There might be a perception amongst girls and women that the military has no place for them or it is tough and unbearable for women. But Major Kayirangwa is a living proof that it is not tough as most would deem it and that everyone, despite their gender, can serve effectively in the military and serve their country.
“There is nothing to fear in a military career, there are numerous benefits amongst them shaping your character, physique, mentally and knowledge. There are several career opportunities in the military and it lets you live your dreams. In addition, the military helps one to shape her physical wellbeing and it increases one’s mental capabilities to grasp knowledge and skills quickly. It is worth your time,” Major Kayirangwa says.Follow https://twitter.com/ByCollinsMwai