FOR TIME immemorial, Africa was a big island boiling to the brim in male chauvinism; women were not given any right to exist apart from the kitchen and warming their husbands’ beds. Tough tolls were taken on women who dared to speak out or come out of the framework fighting to become a significant part of the culture and times.
However, with time the pro feminist movement which had been sweeping the entire world from America, and Africans caught the bug albeit slightly later.
In the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide, a new government of National unity introduced innovative policies and laws to ensure that females could participate equally in society. After advancement in the political sphere, renewed efforts were needed to ensure that women no longer bore the brunt of the effects of poverty alone.
As Rwanda battles to reduce the poverty of its people, it is widely hoped that the increasing gender-awareness in the country can give it a special advantage.
It is seven years since the country’s current constitution, enacted in a 2003 referendum, mandated a 30 percent representation of women at all levels of government. Today, Rwanda’s bicameral parliament holds the world record for female political representation with 56.2 percent of its members being women. They now occupy 43 out of the 80 seats in the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) as well as 9 out of the 26 seats in the upper house (the Senate).
The constitution has not only led to more women MPs, increasingly women are taking up positions as ministers, high-ranking police officers and local leaders – a huge advance for a country where they previously tended to remain at home as wives and mothers. This type of women representation is not only in the parliament, in the cabinet of the 20 ministers, 9 are female leading important sectors of development like Health, Agriculture and Disaster preparedness and Refugees among others.
Legislatively speaking, in the parliament, there are 10 women senators compared to the 16 male ones, with the vice president of the senate being a lady, while in the lower chamber, so far there are more female deputies than men as they occupy a stunning 56% of the seats compared to the male 43%
In the province and district levels, overall female representation amounts to 37% in District council representation, 41% in the in the District Executive council and 33% In Kigali city’s Executive committee. Currently Rwanda has a female provincial governor being the only one in previously male occupied seats.
In the Judiciary, 43% are women judges in the High commercial court, 33% are presidents in the Intermediate courts, and 42% are judges in the primary courts.
In the Rwandan Economy, ladies are a force to reckon with. As the campaign for Agaciro goes strong, more and more ladies are stepping up to hold the reins in areas like Managers, Commercial sectors and Sales teams, Drivers and Machine Operators, Engineers, Day to Day labour like Brick laying and building as well as agriculture and fishery industries.
This not only proves to the world at large that Rwanda has taken the pro-women approach seriously but is also the nation that women can be politicians, leaders and world changers as well as men can.
This move by President Paul Kagame has seen many people express support for his pro-women policies. Erin Baines, an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at Canada’s University of British Columbia, whose research focuses on Rwandan justice and reconciliation issues, gender, youth and armed conflict, said: “By including women in decision-making, the Rwandan government shrewdly draws upon the nation’s most important resource to help rebuild the country: women. It is a bold and smart move.”
In Rwanda, 77 per cent of all 15 to 24-year-olds – irrespective of what sex they are – can read and write as of 2005-2010, according to UNICEF. Primary school enrollment is in fact slightly higher for girls – 97 per cent compared with 95 per cent for boys, as is attendance at 87 per cent and 84 per cent respectively. However, these figures drop off significantly in secondary school and there are fewer women at university. Girls are not dropping out of school because they lack intelligence or the will to learn, according to the Rwanda Association of University Women, they are dropping out because they hold all the household responsibilities. Equal access, say campaigners, but not equal opportunity.
“Rwanda is undoubtedly one of the most gender promoting countries in Africa. Women leaders are notable in their positions as heads of different organizations, both government and private. I have been in Rwanda for three years and it is evident that one of Rwanda’s strengths is its pro-women policies.”
“In the next years however, I would like to see Rwandan men adopt the gender issue, because Gender does not necessarily refer to the female sex alone, it refers to men too. The more they accept that women are as good as men when passing policies and deciding on what is good for the nation.” Jessica Besant, the regional director of Search for Common Ground in Rwanda, says.
She however stressed that women should not think that gender equality means that they should desert their housewifely duties; on the contrary, they should embrace it, as well as their office duties.
However, there are some women organizations that are key in the struggle for the wellbeing of women in Rwanda. The biggest of these, Profemme Twese Hamwe has been operating since 1992.
“Pro-Femmes started 20 years ago as an umbrella cooperation of 13 associations; we were affected by the tragic genocide that undermined what we had worked for during that time. We were determined to go on with our mission so as soon as the genocide ended, we started with the tedious job of restructuring the organization, at times which included reconciling the women” Umulisa Angelique, program manager at the Nyamirambo based organization tell The New Times.
Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe is now big with over 58 associations under its wing. “It was challenging uniting all the women after the genocide. It still is. We had to figure out a way of reconciling survivors, widows, ex-soldiers, prisoners’ wives under the same associations. Believe me, it was not easy bringing them under the same roof. It still is not. You have to be patient with all the groups because all of them have to face their own trauma their way. Suggesting that they all come under one roof was like asking a snake and a rabbit to become best friends!” Umulisa confesses.
Pro-Femmes’ basic aim was to contribute to the eradication of all forms of discrimination against women. Umulisa asserts that in order to decrease the number of undesired pregnancies among school teenage girls, they set up health clubs which would sensitise the girls on keeping themselves pure.
They also helped to set up through one of their various member organisations centres for Psycho-social rehabilitation of a large number of traumatised people. Pro-Femmes is also behind the education of girl children in mass numbers after the genocide where it led a mass drive in lieu of their education.
However like any organization, they suffered a number of setbacks, which mostly centered on the slow change of mentality towards gender promotion. “Most men think that gender is a word that refers to only women.” Umulisa says “in order to convince men that they needed to contribute to their expertise
Limited resources (human, financial and material) compared to beneficiaries’ needs and their numerous problems was also a big issue especially since in order for girls to study they needed funding and that is where they fell short.
The biggest problem they face though, is the cultural hamper of the mindset where
Gender Based Violence (GBV) is concerned. “Gender Based Violence continues to be a big problem in the country. Our campaign though is now backed by the First lady of Rwanda; we are hoping that we will fight gender based violence until it is history in Rwanda”
On the gender promotion front, they experienced a minor victory when they established strategic alliances with men engaged in the promotion of gender, i.e. Gender Desk at the National Policy, Gender Desk at the National Army, Rwandan Men’s Resources Centre (RWAMREC) member PF/TH.
Imbuto Foundation is another organisation which has championed the rights of women for over 10 years.
According to a statement from the First lady’s office, Imbuto started with the belief in the right to equal opportunity and a dignified life. Formerly known as Protection and Care of Families Against HIV/AIDS (PACFA), this vision began by providing the most basic rights to HIV positive men, women and children across Rwanda. Through the provision of health care and economic opportunity, PACFA›s work gave renewed hope to thousands of Rwandans.
Five years and three additional program areas later, PACFA became Imbuto Foundation. With its name symbolically translating as seed and programs based on Engaging, Empowering and Educating, Imbuto Foundation is nurturing an entire generation of change makers. In the words of Imbuto Foundation’s Founder, First Lady Jeannette Kagame “A seed well planted, watered, nurtured and given all the necessary support successfully grows into a healthy plant - one that reaches high and stands tall.”
Today Imbuto Foundation celebrates the hundreds of young girls now receiving an education through its scholarship program, the thousands of families who have received health care and become economically independent through its income generating activities program and the generation of young Rwandans who have been empowered to take part in building a dignified nation.
The President of Imbuto Foundation is Her Excellency Mrs. Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of the Republic of Rwanda. Mrs. Jeannette Kagame personifies an active, relentless and passionate devotion to uplifting the lives of vulnerable populations in Rwanda, and in particular those of widows, orphans of the genocide and impoverished families.
As the nation’s First Lady, she has an admirably balanced family, social life and philanthropy, not only in her own country but continentally and worldwide.
Through these organizations, the rights of women have been championed. It does not mean however that the struggle has ended.
Many women in Rwanda still live below the poverty line and make their living in disreputable professions like prostitution and hawking which sometimes put their lives at risk.
In celebrating International Women’s day, we should keep in mind that even the race is halfway; the finish line for many women is still very far away.