Since 2008, Rwanda has been among the countries promoting gender equality. Women’s representation in the parliament is over 50%, and many people are naming the Rwandan example a success story.
How did that happen?
Among the many ethnic groups that compose Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi were the two prominent in the political sphere, with the Tutsi minority dominating the country. In 1897 the German empire colonized Rwanda, making it a part of German East Africa. Later, the country was under Belgian control which favored the Tutsi over the Hutu majority. There was a history of tensions between the two groups, sometimes also instigated by the German and Belgian colonizers.
During colonial rule, the racial differences of the two ethnicities were continuously pointed out. For example, the ethnicity was written on the identity card of all citizens. From the 1950s until 1994, there were many conflicts between the two tribes with the most important being the Hutu revolution in 1959 which forced many Tutsi to flee the country.
In 1994, a brutal genocide took place between April 7th and July 15th. During these 100 days of civil war, around 800.000 Tutsi women, children and men were slaughtered by armed militias. It is estimated that the total number of deaths, including Hutu and Twa, a minority group known as the first inhabitants of the country, rises to 1.100.00 people.
The deaths, the tortures and the arrests of a great number of men changed the country’s population and rules. After the war, the social fabric was completely destroyed and since women made up 70% of the population, they entered the workforce in order to rebuild the country.
According to Matebe Chisiza, foreign policy advisor and gender expert:
“More women were in the country therefore they had to take on roles which are typically reserved for men”.
The Rwandan government under Kagame's presidency, who leads the country until today, underlined the importance of women in leadership for the country’s evolution. Many legislations and laws were enacted, such as the Anti-sex discrimination legislation and laws to eradicate gender- based violence in the country. Debates around gender became very important especially after rapes having been used as a “weapon” during the genocide. Women and girls accessed education and health care and a Ministry devoted to women and gender, that helped them to integrate into political life, was established.
This brought Rwanda in 2008 to a point that half of its government was run by women. In 2013, the representation of women in the parliament reached 64%, putting Rwanda in the 4rth place in the gender equality global ranking. But this allegedly applies to women who are educated, bilingual and belong to certain privileged social classes.
In spite of such achievements, women think that there is still a lot to do, as the equal gender representation in politics does not necessarily align with the societal expectations of women. Patriarchal stereotypes are still the dominant culture and Rwandan women are expected to follow the traditional roles of mothers and wives while men are not active in the household.
In some instances, the equal opportunities of women and men have been questioned. Diane Shima Rwigara was the first female independent candidate in the Rwandan Presidential elections in 2017. The same year she was arrested and charged, among others, for inciting insurrection. For her, total equality has not occurred in her country yet.
In spite of the high representation of women in politics, topics such as the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly or the traditional roles assigned to Rwandan women in the society are subject to questionnement by human rights activists.