Women in Rwanda: Fairy Tale or Facade?
by Himayath Nuzraan
With women now taking up nearly two-thirds of its parliamentary representation, twenty-first century Rwanda has come a long way in becoming the poster child for gender equality in politics. Its fairy-tale-esque story of once being a place of horror for women to now being an exemplary country in gender equality has turned many heads worldwide. At the same time, often lost amongst the praise and applause towards Rwanda’s novel policies are others that frown upon Rwanda’s sudden upheaval of women’s rights: pointing to how gender equality politically does not translate on a domestic level and how President Kagame uses it strategically to win international endorsement.
Though having a parliament boasting a 61% majority of women is an achievement in itself, putting it into context historically helps to grasp its true significance. Most say the change stemmed from the 1994 Rwandan Genocide that caused the death of around 800,000 civilians of Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities, the latter of which were the main victims. With predominantly men being killed, post-genocide Rwanda was a population of 70% women. Not only were these women genocide survivors, but they were victims of a program of systematic sexual violence - promoted by Hutu propaganda during the genocide. Estimates range anywhere from thousands all the way up to 500,000 women and girls, with the data being hindered due to the social stigma that victims felt.
Despite this, Rwanda, newly led by President Paul Kagame who had ended the genocide, was eager to start a new chapter for its women. The 2003 Rwandan Constitution stated that at least 30% of seats must be reserved for women, particularly due to their majority population. Therefore, the change to include a political gender quota was not because of revolution - unlike most feminist movements - but “out of sheer necessity”, as pointed out in research by Hamilton (2000). However, others like Uvuza (2014) argue that women’s representation in Rwandan politics existed before the constitutional change: pointing to the representation of 25.7% in 2000, a drastic increase from 10% just 6 years prior.
Nonetheless, Uvuza (2014) asserts that, though there is gender equality across Rwanda’s political landscape, the same cannot be said for women in the household - as a mother and a wife. Primarily, she points to how the change in political representation has not resulted in a difference in the patriarchal values in society. Because of this, women are still expected to carry out traditional roles of a female due to men's insecurity of their own positions and reluctance to help women with domestic work. In interviews conducted for her research, female decision-makers in the Rwandan parliament claimed they were supposed to still behave "like a woman" would. In many ways, the stigma that existed for victims of the sexual violence during the genocide for fear of being dismissed by society still exists to this day; the expression “nuko ingo zubakwa” roughly translating to “that is how homes/marriages survive” is often dished out whenever women voice out concerns about their partners.
In addition, other researchers criticize President Kagame’s true incentive for using gender quotas. Bush and Zetterberg (2020), in particular, see it as a strategic measure to gain support and, more importantly, monetary aid by seeming more democratic in order to appeal to Western and European nations.
Bjarnegård and Zetterberg (2022) take it one step further by saying that drawing attention to democratic moves such as political gender equality is mainly intentioned on focusing away from President Kagame’s recent history of authoritarianism, labeling it “autocratic genderwashing." For these reasons, Freedom House (2023) rated Rwanda as “not free”: expressing that though Rwanda was a democracy on paper, President Paul Kagame’s actions displayed more autocratic qualities.
Despite being a pioneer of women’s rights, President Kagame’s infamous coercion tactics against his political opposition that consistently won him over 90% of the vote did not spare female opponents. In 2012, Victoire Ingabaire was sentenced for genocide denial after stating that those of Hutu and Twa ethnicity, not just Tutsi, were killed in the Rwandan genocide. During the 2017 election, Diane Rwigara aimed to run against him - angered by the politically-motivated death of her father, which the state claimed to be caused by a car accident. Despite collecting far more than the required amount of signatures, she was not allowed to run for President since the signatures were deemed invalid. Soon, explicit pictures of Diane were released to the media and she was arrested for incitement against the government the same year.
The result? President Kagame won with 98.8% of the official vote.
Uvuza, J. (2014). Hidden inequalities :Rwandan female politicians’ experiences of balancing family and political responsibilities. https://theses.ncl.ac.uk/jspui/handle/10443/2475
Bush, S. S., & Zetterberg, P. (2020). Gender quotas and international reputation. American Journal of Political Science, 65(2), 326–341. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12557
Bjarnegård, E., & Zetterberg, P. (2022). How Autocrats Weaponize Women’s Rights. Journal of Democracy, 33(2), 60–75. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2022.0018
Hamilton, H. (2000). Rwanda’s Women: The Key to Reconstruction. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. https://reliefweb.int/report/rwanda/rwandas-women-key-reconstruction
Freedom House. (2023). Rwanda. In Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/rwanda/freedom-world/2023
Himayath Nuzraan is a high school junior from Sri Lanka. He enjoys writing about political and global issues from a unique perspective.