From Genocide to Gender Equailty

Hilda Berg | March 28th, 2023

| Change the Nation | Promote Equality | Inspire Passion

In 1994, Rwanda suffered one of the most brutal genocides in modern history,  lasting 100 days and taking almost one million lives. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were subjected to sexual violence by persecutors through rape, sexual slavery and sexual mutilation. Testimonies confirm these vile acts were largely widespread during the atrocious 100 days, a merciless act used as a means to terrorize and served as a constant reminder of the misogynistic presence the world just cannot seem to rid itself of. Now, almost 30 years after genocide, the country of Rwanda ranks amongst the top five countries in the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, considering the degrees of women’s participation in the economy, education achievements, health and political involvement. Rwanda is the only non-Scandinavian country to place in the top five and the only country in the world to have a female-majority parliament.


In 30 years, Rwanda transformed from a country plagued by extremely strict gender norms in which women shouldn’t have their own jobs and much less own any land, to being a pioneer of political diversity and gender equality. Interestingly, this progressive development arguably has its very beginning in the brutal genocide itself. One of Rwanda’s most notorious achievements of gender equality is closing at least 80% of its gender pay gap, landing the country a place within the top ten countries in the world to manage such a feat. Considering the global average of 77 cents for a woman per every dollar for a man, Rwanda’s accomplishment can indeed be applauded. Of course, the very notion that a woman deserves less in payment for the same labor than a man is ridiculous and outdated, yet said global average tells a different truth.


Because a woman is a woman, she shouldn’t earn as much as a man, is, in fact, exactly what the gender pay gap advocates for. At the current rate, an estimated 257 years will have to pass before this gap is closed. So for the next two and a half centuries, women will continue to be at the economic mercy of men, to financially and hence humanistically suffer at the hands of them, subjected to their innate privilege of not being a woman in a world so endlessly set on controlling anything not male. Until a woman’s work is recognised for its equality to a man’s work, and until women are no longer severely underrepresented in positions of power, the gap between adequate representation to be present where influential decisions, including those about women, are being made and actual gender equality will continue to persist.


Hence, the African nation of Rwanda should rightfully give themselves a pat on the back. Not only have they closed such a large portion of the pay gap compared to other nations, but their parliament also consists of around 60% women, the highest percentage in the world. It arguably raises the question of how a country which suffered tremendous horror and loss less than three decades ago could achieve such an impressive triumph. Well, immediately following the genocide, the Rwandan population of around six million people was 60-70% female. Despite pre-genocide Rwanda being unaccustomed to women pursuing their own paid jobs, encouraging their entry into the workforce seemed now the only solution to keeping the country from crumbling to pieces. As absurd as it seems, it was only when there was an actual lack of men that society opened its eyes to the true potential of women, or rather, were forced to recognise their true potential. The new president of the time, which still remains in power today, Paul Kagame, acknowledged this impending truth and his government soon began acting in such a way that placed both men and women in the central role of the country’s recovery.


In most countries where gender equality has been a goal to be met, it all began with a will of the people. Like any other social upheaval, it was social revolutionaries which pushed for women’s rights that began the long journey of a cultural change regarding the great role of gender. However, in Rwanda, this was never the case. Instead, the government itself decided to shortcut this seemingly crucial stage of history and skipped straight to pro-women policies, failing to acknowledge the more realistic notion that any social issue can only be resolved with the public’s approval.


The government simply ignored social norms that still withstood within the everyday life of their citizens and decided to approach the deeply rooted misogyny from top to bottom. When the new constitution was passed in 2003, it was decreed that 30% of the parliamentary seats were reserved for women. During the election the same year, an astounding 48% of the seats went to women. Additionally, girls’ education was to be encouraged and it was said that women would be appointed to many leadership roles, both on a large and local scale. Thus, it appears that Rwanda simply was and is in no need of any revolutionary force taking action on the streets for the country to simply rearrange its notions of what a woman is good for. After all, the statistics speak for themselves, demonstrating development of gender equality which few other countries have managed to do.


Nevertheless, clean numbers on paper can be too good to be true, and when looking into the actual lives of Rwandans themselves, another story is being told. A story where feminism is seen as a ‘dirty’ word. A story where, according to the UN, one in every three women in Rwanda has experienced domestic abuse, be it physical, economic or sexual. A story where rape is still often blamed on the woman instead of the perpetrator himself. The patriarchy continues to seek through in small gaps, making itself evident in everyday life and barricading the country’s true road to gender equality. Real change, cultural change, tough as it may be, has to start from the inside out. It must begin in the homes of Rwandan families, in the schools of Rwandan children, and in the way of life for all Rwandans, as it must occur for everybody else. Only that, the systematic and behavioral adaptation of the population in its entity, will change the numbers on sexual violence, domestic abuse and the true freedom of women.


It is especially evident, the truth behind the glam and glow, that the country thought of as the proud ambassador of gender equality might not be as fault-free as it seems on paper when the women parliamentarians belonging to the most gender diverse government in the world don’t even have control over their own lives. When Justine Uzuva was getting her Ph.D. at Newcastle University, she returned to her home country Rwanda to interview some women politicians on their private lives. What she found was, with rare exception, that the women she interviewed seemed to bring little of their official positions into their actual homes, where patriarchal norms persisted in domestic life. The women, despite possessing some of the country’s arguably most powerful positions, were fully expected to take on the role of traditional wives. They were to shoulder the domestic workload and many feared violence from their husbands should they refuse to do so. Justine concluded from her research that the same women politicians who feared not to speak up in parliament about penalties for sexual violence were the same ones who feared to speak about the oppression they faced at home. Women might experience wonderful representation in the leadership of their country, but when it comes to their everyday life, the patriarchy is as evident as ever.


Of course, adequate gender inclusiveness in politics and other spheres of authority are crucial for the advancement of all women. Rwanda has done a fantastic job in recovering the state of their country by recognising the important role women play in it. Successful advancements in educational, political and economic states for women have been made as a result. Regardless, true equality is not achieved without the will of the people to have it. A country is only as good as its people and if the people do not believe in the rights and freedom of all women, then how can young girls grow up to believe they can become part of that 60% in the Rwandan government and a free woman in her own home?


/Hilda Berg



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