KIGALI – Don’t blink, warn locals to a newly returning visitor, only half-joking, or you might miss it. The “it” in question refers to the quietly bustling capital city of Rwanda itself, or a tall smoky blue-glass building towering over a local neighborhood of corrugated rooftops and mud-earth houses. From high above, a shiny black octopus steadily extends its reach across Kigali, its tentacles newly paved roads replacing rocky red-earth ones. “Things are changing so fast here in Rwanda,” laughs Cecile, a student and budding tour operator. “We hardly recognize it ourselves. Kigali is becoming modern—a city of the future. even us who live here can’t keep track of how much is changing.”
Welcome to Rwanda. Blink, then look again. There, standing tall amid the mid-morning chaos of a rond-point, or traffic roundabout, is a young uniformed policewoman calmly halting an impatient mini-bus driver. There, behind the thick glass teller window at the local Banque Populaire du Rwanda, is a smart-looking older woman in a modern African-cut suit who quietly counts out a thick wad of blue-green mille-francs bills. Her customer, an elderly woman in a traditional dress and head wrap, looks on with quiet satisfaction. The money represents a week’s take—sales of fruit and cassava grown in a small plot an hour away by bus. With it, she’ll buy meat, cover school fees for her grandchildren, and soon, add electricity to her home. She is uneducated and poor, and like many here, a genocide widow. But she can sign her own name, and does, carefully and proudly, next to the number of her newly opened bank account.
All across the Land of a Thousand Hills, as Rwanda is known, scenes like this one play themselves out daily, reflecting the profound, ongoing changes and progress for women that have made Rwanda—once known only for the genocide of 1994—a global poster child for women’s rights. The nation is lauded by global leaders for many other achievements, too: in peacemaking, sustainable development, agriculture, healthcare, education, and communications. Tiny Rwanda, a country in ashes less than 20 years ago, boasts a fiber optic network that connects city residents with coffee farmers in its high hills and pygmy communities who share the border forests with gorillas. Coffee, gorillas, genocide, decent cell phone service—Rwanda today is a global tourist magnet, a Phoenix-like success story, and everywhere one looks, women are a part of it.
“I think it’s true to say that women have been extraordinary because of the huge burden they had to carry after the genocide,” said Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, a physician who’s also Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health, speaking at a February forum on the progress of women in Rwanda. “Women here have had a choice to be an active part of the rebuilding of the country and the reconciliation. And it was ordinary women and leaders, in the towns and rural areas—everyone participated.”
She’s quick to add that many hands joined the gender revolution, including men in the post-genocide Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) leadership. “We have not done this alone,” she adds. “It has involved all sectors of society, including the government and the President. The national policies have supported women to play a more active role.” Dr. Binagwaho also credits First Lady Jeanette Kagame for serving as a strong role model and for her advocacy on behalf of women, genocide and rape survivors, orphans, and people with HIV/AIDS. “I admire the First Lady a lot,” she added. “She’s very dynamic and intelligent and has done a lot for women here and for Africa.”
Rising from the Ashes
With husbands and sons murdered, women and girls made up 70% of the post-genocide population, many Tutsi women who had previously done only “women’s work”—farming, trading, caring for children. The door to public life swung open, and women joined the workforce and the government at all levels: as police, soldiers, engineers, builders, taxi, and bus drivers—all things once socially taboo. They also took roles in the judicial system, and it was there that the revolution began.
The genocide illuminated pre-existing inequities that made it harder for women survivors to recover. Widows discovered that they had also lost the right to their family property, since property laws did not allow women or girls to inherit. Others found that male relatives demanded they serve as “second wives.” Still others, now sick with HIV contracted from rape, found themselves evicted from family homes or lands. “It became clear to us that we had to reform the laws to address this discrimination,” said Ingnatienne Nyirarukundu, president of the Rwanda Forum of Women Parliamentarians (FFRP). “That also helped us to strengthen the overall judicial system.”
Today, Rwanda boasts more women in Parliament than any other nation—56%—a huge increase from a below 17% pre-genocide figure. It’s transitional post-genocide government took steps to support women’s participation in decision-making, establishing “women’s councils” and “women-only” elections, as well as a triple balloting system to ensure women occupied a set percentage of seats at the district and local level. It also established a Ministry for Gender and Women in Development, and gender posts at all levels of government and ministries. Today, a national gender framework and gender budgeting are being implemented in line with Rwanda’s Millennium Development Goals and Vision 2020—a national blueprint for growth. Other victories include critical legal reforms related to sexual violence, marital rape, labor rights, property and inheritance, education, and family law.
“We have been able to put equality into the law and our Constitution, at all levels, so that now we have the protections for women,” said Dr. Binagwaho. “If a lot has been achieved, a lot remains to be done at the local level for women to use all the opportunities offered by the legal framework.”
In February, Minister of Gender and Family Promotion Jeanne d’ Arc Mujawamariya welcomed members of the National Women’s Council of Kigali City to review women’s progress since 2004—the 10-year anniversary of the genocide. More women were accessing communal health insurance, microcredit schemes, and income-generation programs, adopting family planning methods, and keeping their children in school—especially girls. “You are heroes because where Rwanda has reached as far as development is concerned, you have been at the helm of it,” MP Yvonne Uwayiseng said, hailing Rwanda’s women.
Global Model—or Exception?
Globally, Rwanda clearly presents a strong case study of the national benefits of empowering women, one others hope to copy. But its unique history also factors heavily into its success—and so does timing. Without the massive tragedy of genocide, which reset the national clock to zero and forced women into new roles and power, would Rwanda have achieved very much for women? After all, the death of so many husbands and sons created the void. More importantly, without women’s vision and influence at all levels, would Rwanda have embraced innovation and reform as it has? Externally, the adoption of international gender reforms like the Convention of the Rights of Women (CEDAW) and later, Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, also influenced Rwanda’s national policies.
“It’s one of the only positive things we can take from what happened,” said Henriette Byabagamba, a trauma counselor running youth programs for the local Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment Initiative, about the unexpected silver lining of women’s empowerment that resulted from tragedy. But she’s quick to add, “It doesn’t change anything about what we lost. That can never be replaced.”
Extending the Gains
It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s still another to give it muscle. “Up to now, we haven’t been able to engage rural women as much as we want to,” stated Liberate Uwimana, head of Solidarité, one of the many nonprofit groups women set up after the genocide. “That’s still a big piece of work to do. But I do see change, and it is encouraging. The women are mobilizing even in the villages.”
Rural women—and men—make up 86% of the population in this mainly agricultural land. Many are very poor, illiterate farmers who lag behind in the new Rwanda. Away from Kigali’s sparkling skyscrapers, after a dawn spent farming small plots, they sit inside dim village huts, shelling peas or walking long distances over paths to get clean water. The country is decentralizing, giving more resources to the towns and villages, to local leaders. But the real money and power remains highly centralized in Kigali. Many rural women remain unschooled, and, as much as they want to keep their daughters in school, they worry they won’t be able to attend beyond elementary classes. In the villages, health services are still limited, and all the diseases of poverty are found there: malaria, tuberculosis, water-borne diseases—and HIV/AIDS.
“We still have a lot of problems in Rwanda—no one is denying that,” said Assumpta Umurungi, Executive Secretary of AVEGA-Agahozo, one of the first post-genocide widow’s self-help networks. It has chapters in the countryside and over 25,000 members. “Life continues to be very difficult for many members, even though we have been able to help them with psychosocial support and medical care, housing, and income generation programs. Women also help one another. But we still don’t have the housing, and they need work. They need food. Many of them are affected by HIV since the genocide.”
At over an hour’s drive from Kigali, in the town of Rwamagana sits the headquarters of AVEGA-Sud, the southern chapter of the organization. It’s an area where a lot of killing took place in 1994. Now, with the noonday sun bright, elderly widows and their few remaining children may be found sitting alone inside darkened homes. Some stay inside to avoid the possibility of running into “a ghost”—a returning neighbor, perhaps released from jail, who, everyone knows, killed members of the survivor’s family.
“The trauma continues,” admitted Umurungi. “So, yes, things have changed, but we still live with this difficult past every single day.”
There are other political factors that may also impact how much Rwandan women advance—or speak out. Although President Paul Kagame remains very popular among many Rwandans, he has strong opposition critics who label his rule an authoritarian regime that they say tolerates little dissent and a too-narrow democratic space. As it stands, the political picture in Rwanda remains complex, with an undercurrent of political tension invisible to the passing tourist. Given its recent history, unhealed “divisionism,” and the presence of armed genocidaires next door in the Congo, Kagame’s supporters justify his firm hand and limits on open speech.
Many first-time visitors to Rwanda these days have one thing foremost in their minds: the genocide. They have likely read one of the many popular books or watched the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. The scale and detail of horror of this African Shoah leave an indelible mark, even from a distance of 17 years and across oceans. In Rwanda, they find, the genocide has become a grim tourist lure—a subject endlessly presented in various forums. Locals often call it The War, an easier word to say than genocide.
For Rwandans, the events of 1994 still serve as a singular reference point and historic yardstick for nearly everything, be it the nation’s or women’s advances. It courses like an undercurrent through Rwanda’s present society yet remains a subject many wish to move past, wanting Rwanda—and themselves—to be known for something else. Still, one Sunday a month, for years, citizens are required to turn up at the outdoor tribunals called gacaca where the crimes of the genocide are reviewed. And every April 6, Rwandans are freshly reminded of the 100 horrific days from April-June 1994, when half of their citizens—ordinary Hutus—were ordered by extremist leaders to systematically hunt and murder their Tutsi neighbors: to kill or be killed. Unlike modern war, machetes were the weapon distributed to the masses.
In all, more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, and many more were crippled or scarred for life, either physically or mentally. Men and boys were killed first; women and girls were held in rape camps and tortured. When they finally escaped or were liberated, many had HIV, a legacy of this genocide. Of 250,000 women genocidal rape survivors, an estimated 67% contracted HIV, estimated AVEGA.
Today, the images from Rwanda’s genocide remain haunting, time-locked testimonies to horror. What remains of the dead are buried within mass plots outside the big genocide museum in Kigali, or in row upon row of skulls that line the walls of smaller memorial sites, or as parts of bone that poke up among the rubble inside churches that served as killing fields and remain untouched.
Blink then look again. Within the bright metropolis, the past lives and has a future. The young policewoman directing traffic: she is an orphan of the genocide, the only survivor of a once-large extended family, or the eldest of a child-headed household. There are so many war and AIDS orphans in Rwanda. The bank teller: She served in a militia—on one side or the other. She did or experienced things too terrible to recount to her own children or grandchildren and suffers silently as so many Rwandans do, from posttraumatic stress, from itching scars under her fine suit. The uneducated elderly widow: She sold her aging body to feed her grandchildren, since her own children were killed. Now she, too, has HIV.
Across Rwanda today, in private and public rooms, the healing—and failure to heal—goes on, often out of sight to tourists but painfully visible if one bothers to look or ask.
“In the first years of the genocide, nobody really helped us much,” said Consolata N., an AVEGA widow. “We were so poor and homeless and sick. We decided we had to help ourselves.” She’s explaining how the revolution began for ordinary women like her, who were triply stigmatized when the war ended. They not only lost family, but titles to their homes and animals, due to then-patriarchal inheritance laws. Some were chased away by family members because they had born a child from rape. Others who fell ill with HIV or who became disabled from war wounds resorted to begging. Still others went mad, committed suicide, or fell into profound depression. “Since all of us had suffered from this, we were able to support each other,” added Consolata. “That is what saved us.”
Today, AVEGA is known globally for its advocacy on behalf of widows and survivors with HIV. Of an estimated 250,000 women and girls who survived rape, an estimated three-quarters contracted HIV as a result, AVEGA estimated. Before antiretroviral treatment arrived in Rwanda, many developed AIDS and died. In 2003, AVEGA and other groups sounded the global alarm, pressuring world leaders to help save the survivors and their children, also HIV positive. Globally, international activists and medical professionals responded, joining leaders like Dr. Binagwaho, AVEGA, Solidarité, and many local NGOs to bring in lifesaving HIV care and drugs.
For genocide and rape survivors, confronting HIV meant confronting how they contracted the virus. That meant reliving the trauma of sexual violence. “Up to then we were learning to die,” recalled Consolata. “After we had to learn to live.”
“We can never forget—it’s our duty to our families and our nation to never forget,” says AVEGA’s Umurungi. “It’s our duty to survive and to assure this never happens again. That means we have had to participate. We have become leaders.”
HIV-positive women have emerged as outspoken community- and peer-educators and activists, leading support groups, visiting patients’ homes, and spreading the message of HIV prevention. “The most important and biggest progress we’ve made is that our women with HIV have been able to develop a positive quality of life, and understand that having HIV is not the end of the world—that it’s possible to continue living positively,” said Shamsi Kazimbaya, Executive Secretary at the Rwanda’s chapter of the Society of Women and AIDS, or SWAA. “We get there through psychosocial counseling. Secondly, we have to address poverty, so we have an economic program to reinforce their capacity with trainings and small income-generation programs that we help finance. Of course, it’s a process, and our role is mainly advocacy to find the funding and support the women.”
Rwanda’s Girl Effect
Among Rwandan leaders, there’s consensus that education is the critical key to empowering women and girls who can’t advance far without it—especially poor, rural residents. That’s why the government made public education free, and in 2008, rolled out a Girls’ Education Policy. Pregenocide, Rwandan boys outnumbered school girls 9 to 1. Now both attend primary school in equal numbers—97%—though fewer than 13% of girls attend secondary school. Girls make up 50% of college students.
“Not every woman has benefited in the same way, and that has a lot to do with the lack of education for girls,” said Maria Bwakira, the dynamic in-country director of the new Rwanda Girls Initiative, which just opened the Gashora Girls Academy, the country’s first math and science upper-secondary boarding school for girls. Its first class has 90 girls, and many seek scholarships to attend.
“Education is the key. We have a generation, even two, in Rwanda that did not get it. But for the ones coming up now, we can do something,” said Bwakira.
Over at the new Centre for Gender, Culture, and Development at the Kigali Institute of Education, a modern facility with new computers and a growing library of resources on the women’s movement, the program is “devoted to thinking through the complexities of sex and gender identity.” A first Master of Social Science, Gender and Development class began in January with 50 students—nine of them men, including two from the Rwanda Men’s Resource Center—a new men’s group fighting sexual violence. “We are engaged in consultancies and research—developing a gender audit and baseline, gender policy, and gender action plan for the National University of Rwanda,” reported director Shirley Randall in April, ticking off a long list of activities. She hopes to develop a distance-learning program for teachers studying in rural areas.
Blink, then look again: Next year, or in the future, the young girls at Gashora Academy will return to remote home villages to teach and empower others in “girls clubs” that will dot Rwanda, if Bwakira fulfills her dream. Their brothers may join Randall’s new gender master class, and write a new chapter of men’s growing role in the liberation of women. Like their mothers, and grandmothers, they will defy history.