Chamseddine: Learning from Rwanda

by Reem Chamseddine | 4/19/15 6:55pm

With Hillary Clinton officially announcing her candidacy for president, the potential for a woman to lead the United States is once again a possibility. In the small country of Rwanda, women are also making significant strides in the political sphere. Rwanda boasts an impressive 63.8 percent of female parliamentarians in their lower house — the highest proportion across all countries and more than 10 percent above second-place Bolivia. The United States, with women making up 19.4 percent of the House and 20 of the Senate, pales in comparison.

For some, Rwanda may be remembered for the country’s 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of up to a million. Since then, however, the nation has rebuilt itself — and women have played a large role in that. Beyond political participation, women in Rwanda have many roles in government and are active in business and civil society. As reported in Foreign Affairs’ 2014 May and June issue, seven of the 14 Supreme Court justices are women and “boys and girls now attend compulsory primary and secondary school in equal numbers.” Women may own and inherit property and pass citizenship to their children. There are government funds aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship among women, and businesswomen are prominent members of Rwanda’s private sector.

Many columnists have discussed the devastating outcome of the genocide as a contributing factor to the rise of influence of the country’s women. Once the genocide ended, few government institutions remained intact. Many of today’s institutions were built from scratch, and they required women’s participation from the beginning for several reasons. When interviewed by Foreign Affairs, Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, remembered being a 17-year-old human rights activist in exile — after what he experienced, he vocalized that he could not ignore women’s rights. Many of today’s young generation were raised by single mothers in refugee camps, which many say inspired the generation who worked to rebuild the country. Yet, a main factor behind this rise in women’s political power is the fact that Rwanda’s adult population was disproportionately female immediately after the genocide — in fact, they accounted for up to 70 percent of the population.

With that in mind, it makes sense that women filled the roles that men would have otherwise held — but, what is more interesting is that women were not set aside when gender proportions in the general population became more balanced over time. Today, the male to female population ratio is almost equal — according to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, the population is roughly 48.2 male percent and 51.8 percent female. Despite this, there is still a minimum quota set at 30 percent for female representation throughout the government. Yet instead of merely meeting quota or holding only half of the parliament, women still hold the majority. In my opinion, this is a reflection of the cultural change around women leaders, and not the effect of any particular laws or conditions. What began as an ad hoc solution for the aftermath of a genocide became a real and viable political trend.

The lesson here is that quotas and programs encouraging women leaders are only half the picture. The law alone does not demand change — a cultural shift and a adjustment to citizens’ acceptance of female politicians is also necessary. With such change, rather than seeing the world’s parliaments simply meet a set quota for the number of women representatives, we may see women being elected or appointed into office as often as men. On some years, that could be 64 percent of the parliament. On others, it might be under 50 percent. The point is that women should not be in office just to fulfill a quota — they should be chosen because of what they offer as politicians and policy-makers. The Rwandan parliament looks like one where the presence of women is not just about achieving the quota.

Of course, this is all not to say that Rwanda does not have any problems with gender equality or relations. There is still criticism of how slowly this progress is reaching the rural side — but nevertheless, all states can learn from the rise of women’s power in Rwanda.