Last Sunday, President Paul Kagame met with Rwandan women of all walks of life to celebrate the country’s 20th liberation and to reflect on the strides that the Rwandan women have made over the years.
No doubt women, not just the Rwandan women, have proven time and again that they have unique ability to bridge seemingly insurmountable divides.
Exceptions aside, women are often the most powerful voices for moderation in times of conflict.
While most men come to the negotiating table directly from the war room and battlefield, it is instructive to observe that women usually arrive straight out of civil activism and –take a deep breath—family care.
And yet interestingly, the traditional school of thought about war and peace either ignores women or regards them as victims.
The Genocide against the Tutsi, twenty years ago, gripped the public conscience largely because Rwandan men, women and children were not merely caught in the crossfire; they were targeted, deliberately and brutally by the Interahamwe and government military forces.
The idea of women as peacemakers is not political correctness run amok. Research has shown that women are generally collaborative than men and thus more inclined toward consensus and compromise.
Ironically, women’s status tends to make them adept at finding innovative ways and means to cope with problems. Since they have usually not been behind a rifle, women in contrast to men, have less psychological distance to reach across a conflict line.
They are also more accepted to the other side because it is assumed that they did not participate in any of the actual killing. Women often choose an identity notably that of mothers, that cuts across international borders and ethnic enclaves.
Given their roles as family nurturers, women have a huge investment in the stability of their communities. And since women know their communities, they can predict the acceptance of peace initiatives, as well as broker agreements in their own neighborhoods.
As one time Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, once observed, “for generations, women have served as peace educators, both in their families and in their societies.”
They have proved instrumental in building bridges rather than walls. Women have been able to bridge the divide even in situations where leaders have deemed conflict resolution a futile exercise in the face of so-called intractable ethnic hatreds.
In short, through moral suasion, local women often have influence where outsiders, such as international human rights agencies do not.
Commonsense dictates that women should be central to peacemaking, where they can bring their experience in conflict resolution to bear. Yet, despite all the instances where women have been able to play a role in peace negotiations, women have tended to be relegated to the sidelines as innocent spectators.
Part of the problem has been structural: Even though more and more women are legislators and soldiers, under representation persists in the highest levels of political and military hierarchies.
The Presidents, Prime Ministers, Party leaders, Cabinet Ministers and Generals who typically negotiate peace settlements are overwhelmingly men. There is also a psychological barrier that precludes women from sitting in on negotiations:
Whether you like it or not, waging war is still thought to be a “man’s job”, and as such, the task of stopping war is often delegated to man although if we could begin to think about the process not in terms of stopping war but promoting peace, women would emerge as the more logical choice.
However, the major reason behind women’s marginalisation may be that everyone recognises just how good women are at forging peace. A United Nations official once stated that in Africa, women are often excluded from negotiating teams because the war leaders “are afraid the women will compromise” and give away too much!
Rwanda, however, remains a beacon of hope for women emancipation. Eleven years ago, Rwandans enacted a new Constitution which mandated a 30 per cent representation of women at all levels of government.
Rwanda’s Lower House holds the world’s record for female political representation with 64 per cent of its members being women.
Increasingly, women are taking up more positions as Ministers, high ranking Police officers and local leaders. Yet President Kagame pointed out last week, it is not just about numbers of women representation in various institutions but it was “a natural result of conscious efforts to remove the obstacles that prevented Rwandans, including women, from using their talents and abilities to full potential”.
Ultimately, women tend to bring a different perspective, orientation and skills that focus, not just on dividing the spoils or maintaining the balance of power but helping communities, building societies and restoring justice.
Let us all salute the Rwandan women who have invested their energies and potential in building for the future as they invest in the social structure and the next generation.
The writer is a consultant and visiting lecturer at the RDF Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama