In Africa poverty often carries a female face, more so for countries like Rwanda that are still ranked amongst the poorest in the world.
In this regard: the Rwandan Government has taken upon itself the enviable task of mainstreaming women in the national development process, based on the notion that if you develop a woman you have developed a nation.
Historically, the poverty situation is the consequence of many factors that include: political, economic and geographic.
Existing economic structures have not succeeded in achieving a productivity growth proportional to the rapid population growth.
A situation further compounded by the tragic genocide of 1994, which took more than a million lives, destroying infrastructure and damaging the social fabric. Taking the country back economically, thus the main challenge in the aftermath being poverty eradication.
For most Rwandans, life today is characterised by the following poverty indicators: low economic power, food insufficiency (in quantity and quality), incapacity of families to enrol their children in school, substandard housing and inadequate access to health services, just to name a few.
Rwanda has made substantial progress since 1994 in reconstructing its economy and putting it on a positive growth path. In the aftermath of the genocide and other related conflicts real GDP grew at an annual rate of 10% from 1996-2000; this has since slowed to an annual rate of 6.4%.
Statistics indicate that by June in 2005, 56.9% of the nation’s households lived under the poverty line while 41.3% of the population was living in abject poverty.
Of the families living under the poverty datum line 60% are headed by women and widows. In fact, with the 1994 events, the proportion of women heading households increased to 34% from 20%, which is the average across Africa, with widows constituting 21%, of these.
Poverty in Rwanda thus has a female face. The integrated living conditions survey for, June 2005, shows that women still have limited access to social and economic services compared to men.
For example, women’s literacy rate is estimated at 51.4% compared to 62.5% for men. Women constitute more than 80% of farmers but have limited access to, and control over, assets including land, markets, and credit.
The country’s Economic Development Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (EDPRS), of 2007 highlights that 62% of female-headed households; survive under the poverty datum line as compared to 54% of male-headed households.
Women have historically been disadvantaged in not only accessing material resources like property and credit; they have also been deprived of resources like education, market information and modern technology.
All of these factors have negative implications on the type of enterprises that women are engaged in. In cases of chronic or extreme poverty, girls are predisposed to suffer the same consequences of poverty as their mothers.
An example of this can be witnessed in education, the lack of which is one of the root causes of poverty. For a number of reasons, parents with little education, for the most part women, are less able to see to it that their children get the education they need.
As a result many are not enrolled in schools, with those are underperforming, repeating or dropping out. Little or no change has been made in terms of socio-cultural aspects that impede the education of the female child: Parents’ traditional beliefs on the female and male child, where the latter is favoured especially in the context of poverty, perpetuating gender inequality.
With women comprising more than 54% of Rwanda’s estimated 9 million population; greater gender equality and women’s empowerment should be viewed as an imperative to the realisation of the development goals articulated in Vision 2020 and to meeting targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Both of which posit accelerated poverty reduction as the defining objective of development. Given the urgency of the task the country must exploit all available opportunities for reducing poverty.
Accordingly, central to the fight against poverty is the education of girls and gender development. The role of education in poverty eradication cannot be overstated. No country has succeeded in developing without educating its population.
The benefits of focussed investments in the education of girls and women for our country are multiple. The accumulated evidence worldwide shows that educating girls and women is the single most important investment for sustained development.
The infant mortality rate decreases, with children having a higher probability of getting a good education. Women become major contributors to a larger and better prepared work force with better earning potentials, thus increasing the economic power-base of the family.
For Rwanda where tremendous progress has been made in terms of girls access to education, key challenges still remain these include dealing with poverty which often results in the under performance of the girl child.
Important to Rwanda’s goal of poverty alleviation is empowering women as economic actors, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It is widely acknowledged that economic growth can be stimulated through SME development.
Indeed, the genocide in 1994 left Rwanda’s economic and social structures in shambles. The circumstances forced women to take on new roles and tasks in the reconstruction of the country and opened a window of opportunity for women in the arena of small business.
Closer examination however shows that in Rwanda women have limited access to financing for SMEs. Empowering women by putting capital at their disposal and allowing them to earn an independent income will both help secure their household incomes and make them less vulnerable.
Economic empowerment generates self-esteem, respect and constitutes one of the ways through which women can achieve their emancipation.
As noted by the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, study after study has shown that there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role.
When women are fully involved in the development process the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and investments go up.
And what is true of one family is also true of communities, and in the long run, of whole countries. We must acknowledge that if the largest and most productive segment of our population (women and girls) is not prioritised in poverty reduction, with recognition of their crucial role as partners in the fight against poverty, poverty in Rwanda will continue to have a female face and our efforts towards achieving sustainable development will remain in vain.
Women and girls need and deserve all the resources and means to enable them to participate fully in the development process.
The writers are respectively Research Fellows in the Social Sector and Research Fellow in Macroeconomics, Institute of Policy Analysis and Research-Rwanda (IPAR-Rwanda).