Triumph over Tragedy: The Women's Movement of Rwanda Finds Success Post-Genocide

By Marissa B. Goldfaden
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

On April 6, 1994, the Hutu1 president of Rwanda and the newly elected president of Burundi, also a Hutu, were both assassinated when their jet was shot down while landing in Kigali. In response to the April killing of the two state presidents, over the next three months (April - July 1994) the Hutu-led military and Interahamwe militia groups killed about 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in the Rwandan genocide. After the massacre ended, the Rwandan population was 70% female. While women were targets of torture, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence, the majority of those murdered were men. As such, it became incumbent upon these female survivors to pick up the pieces of their shattered society, both figuratively and literally. Rwanda had traditionally been a patriarchal society, resulting in low literacy rates among women and consequently, minimal female representation in government. The seeds of women’s empowerment in Rwanda had been planted prior to the horrific events of 1994. However, the tragedy that transpired fast-tracked the tentative women’s movement there out of necessity. Fourteen years have now elapsed since the Rwandan genocide; while the populations has normalized, the role of women is still one of prominence, as a result of a new constitution, quota systems, ideological shifts, and the challenging and changing of social norms and gender roles.

This paper will examine the germination of the women’s movement in Rwanda and the effects this movement and the genocide had on each other. The latter was a watershed historical event, for Rwanda, as well as the international community. One could deem the Rwandan women’s movement as triumph over tragedy, the combined result of chance and choice. The research will explain the development and transformation of this movement, as well as its applicability to other situations around the world, in terms of reconstruction, rebuilding, and restorative justice.

According to a 1995 government report prepared for the United Nations FourthWorld Conference on Women, before the outbreak of genocide in 1994, the patriarchal structure of Rwandan society denied women access to opportunities outside the home, and historically discriminated against women, both formally and informally, in education, health, politics and employment. The traditional and legal constraints placed on women by society have been compounded by a lack of knowledge on the part of women themselves about their rights and a lack of power to enforce them. High levels of poverty generally contributed further to the secondary status of women.2 As politicians, women's participation was extremely low prior to the genocide. In parliament, women's participation never rose above 17 percent. Within the executive branch of government, there were no women appointees until 1990, when women constituted a mere 5.26 percent. Although women constituted over half the economically active population in the years leading up to the genocide, they rarely benefited from their labor because of discriminatory laws which denied them land ownership and informal discrimination which limited their ability to obtain credit.3

The first Ministry for Women was established in Rwanda in 1965, but neither this nor the launch of the decade of women in 1975 had a significant impact in addressing women’s legal, cultural, social and educational marginalization.4 The third Global Conference of Women, held in Nairobi in 1985, encouraged Rwandese womento establish the first non-governmental women’s organization, Réseau des Femmes (RDF). Identifying rural women as a priority, its 29 founders mobilized330 women across the country.5 Over the course of time, the RDF gave rise to other groups seeking to address gender imbalances, including voluntary groups that specialized in legal, business, or health issues, and co-operatives.6 As a result, the political party then in power, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) set up the Union of Rwandese Women for Development (URAMA) in 1988. Pressure from URAMA gained women the right to participate in co-operatives and profit-making businesses.7

Through the early 1990’s, Rwandan women had been trying to combat structural problems within society such as food shortages and economic and environmental constraints. Though husbands still controlled resources and owned all the property of the family, women were becoming freer in their movements.8 Improvements were taking place and women were very active in forming associations and in the informal sector, seeking out income-generating activities. In spite of women’s minimal occupancy of political posts and lack of formal education, these groups and associations were beginning to acquire a certain political weight and negotiating strength.9 Even so, social tensions in Rwanda rose during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The harassment of women in pre-genocide Rwanda mirrors the experience of women in other pre-conflict settings. Repression and rape, a gendered expression of the rising extremism, became more commonplace. As the threat of civil war loomed in the early 1990’s, Hutu extremists sought to carefully circumscribe women’s roles.10

Such violence and discrimination were only exacerbated by the outbreak of genocide.

The Rwandan women’s movement initially sought to narrow the gaps between men and women across all sectors of society, ideally and eventually culminating in gender equality. However, in the aftermath of the genocide, necessity dictated a shift in both the means and the ends, as women were then entrusted with rebuilding their society, structurally and socially. With females comprising 70% of the population at the conclusion of the genocide, women immediately assumed multiple roles as heads of household, community leaders, and financial providers, meeting the needs of devastated families and communities. Reconstruction efforts including burying the dead, finding homes for nearly 500,000 orphans, and building shelters.11 In the years to follow, the aim of the women’s movement in Rwanda would evolve from desiring a greater voice and presence in decision-making, within families and the political arena, to legally codifying the achievement of these goals.

Presently, Rwanda is governed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an opposition movement-turned-Tutsi political party. The RPF has made a public commitment to unity and reconciliation within their country. Acknowledging the presence, needs, and potential role of the predominantly female population, the government determined that women must be central to the process of governing, reconciling, and rebuilding the country. Women who held critical position within the ranks of the RPF have been appointed to strategic posts in the transitional government. Their participation and presence has contributed to progressive gender policies within the administration.12

However, even with the implementation of such changes, the largest challenge in modern Rwanda is democratization. In a United Nations Chronicle article, author Consuelo Remmert points to the fact that skeptics say that the inclusion of women serves to divert attention from the absence of a more representative government, stressing that ethnic diversity is essential for the establishment of a democratic state in Rwanda.13 Other challenges to democracy include “Rwanda’s prolonged involvement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war, accusations of human rights abuses at home, the reintegration of accused genocidaires, and the challenge of fostering political debate without a return to the extremism of the early 1990s.”14

But on the issue of inclusivity, Rwanda’s government has taken unprecedented steps to increase the participation of women and young people in governance. Joseph Sebarenzi, former Speaker of the Rwandan Parliament now living in exile in the United States, acknowledges that, “gender representation in Rwanda is an undeniable fact and the government should be credited for it despite its poor record in democracy.”15 Thus, challenges and opportunities are not mutually exclusive; rather, they have proven to often be two sides of the same coin.

Women’s contributions to Rwanda’s physical reconstruction, social healing and reconciliation has been recognized and institutionalized by the government. Rwanda’s transitional government established three initiatives to ensure the inclusion of women in decision-making posts: 1) a parallel system of women’s councils and women-only elections that ensures a mandate for all election bodies; 2) a triple balloting system that ensures the election of women to a set percentage of seats at both the sector and district levels; and 3) the establishment of the Ministry for Gender and Women in Development, as well as gender posts at all levels within Government and ministerial bodies.16

Rwanda’s new constitution, adopted in May 2003, references CEDAW and commits to representation of women at at least 30%. This quota has been met and surpassed, as women now hold nearly 49% of Parliamentary seats, a greater proportion than in any other parliament worldwide. This could at least partially be attributed to the fact that women in government are now perceived by Rwandans as more approachable and trustworthy politicians than their male counterparts. They are also perceived as being better at forgiveness, reconciliation, and post-conflict peace building. More speficially,

Even discussions of national security, traditionally a male arena, highlight the public recognition of women’s contributions…women…have ben instrumental in stabilizing border communities. These women are credited with convincing their husbands and sons living across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to leave rebel groups and return to Rwanda to reintegrate.17

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