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Fast Forward Feminism? Women’s rights in Rwanda

Text: Marie Dudek /




Setting the scene for almost all work in the development sector nowadays are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the well-known set of objectives introduced by the United Nations in 2015 to create better living conditions for all people globally. Achieving gender equality and continuing to empower women is inscribed in SDG 5, putting emphasis on the question of feminism and female empowerment worldwide. And while the feminist discourse is extensive in the Western hemisphere, while countries like Sweden and Germany are introducing feminist foreign policy and feminist development policy, while books are being written about racism and feminism mostly aimed at a Western audience (e.g.: Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall or Women, Race and Class by Angela Y. Davis), it is an African country that first introduced a quota for women in political decision making positions and is to reach a majority of female deputies in parliament: Rwanda (Constitution of Rwanda 2003, Art. 9 §4; Freedom House 2022).


Furthermore, in many other African countries, female leadership is evolving with women taking over more and more powerful positions in politics and legislation (Salami 2013). Yet, this process is rarely discussed in Western debates about feminism, even though the statistics of female empowerment in Rwanda tell a story that Western countries with less female representation in politics could learn from – or not? Is the reason for this lack of attention that feminism is thought to be a Western concept and that we in Europe and North America presume to “know it best”? If more eyes had been put on the Rwandan inclusion of women into political leadership, it would have long been noticed that the bespoke integration of the quota in the constitution (as early as 2003, to be noted) was not only an act of the ruling party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and President Kagame, but also women’s organisations mobilising for more female empowerment (Salami 2013). After all, it was down to the women to rebuild the country after the Rwandan genocide. Therefore, the quota could symbolise a joint, feminist effort of both men and women in the Rwandan society to effectuate more gender equality [1] – at least this is what Salami (2013) wrote in her article in the Guardian ten years after the implementation of the quota for more women in decision-making organs in politics.


The new Rwandan constitution is indeed a remarkable one in declaring the commitment to “ensuring equal rights between Rwandans and between women and men without prejudice to the principles of gender equality and complementarity in national development” (Constitution of Rwanda 2003, Preamble §10) and including the quota of “at least 30 percent of posts in decision-making organs” (Constitution of Rwanda 2003, Art. 9 §4) which in practice is resulting in 24 of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies being reserved for women. The remaining seats are directly allocated to parliamentarians following elections via a proportional representation system and a mandate is in place for parties to include women in high-priority positions on the candidate lists for political positions (Burnet 2019; UNDP 2012). Since the introduction of the quota, the amount of women in politics has increased steadily, leading up to now women making up 38% of the Senate and 61% of the lower house (Freedom House 2022). This is remarkable, as it is the highest rate of female deputies in the world (Freedom House 2022).


Because of these numbers, Rwanda has increasingly been mentioned as a shining example when it comes to gender equality in politics. In many newspaper articles and discussions, the quota is being taken as an indicator for the rising feminism and gender equity aspirations in the country (Staude 2018). Furthermore, since the introduction of the quota in 2003, various pieces of legislation and policies have been passed aiming at the improvement of gender equality in Rwanda. In 2008, the “Law on the Prevention, Protection and Punishment of Any Gender-Based Violence” (Law No. 59/2008) was introduced. It protects pregnant women’s rights in education and at the workplace and, most importantly, classifies rape and other forms of sexual violence as punishable crimes. This step has been considered as revolutionary in the pursuit of women’s rights in Rwanda, as it challenged cultural norms which previously hampered the prosecution of Gender-Based Violence (Burnet 2019). Some of the policies adopted after the introduction of the quota aiming to improve the recognition of women’s and girls’ rights are the Girls’ Education Policy (2008), the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy II (2013) and the National Gender Policy (2021). Besides the legislative part, the inclusion of women in the economy is also progressing, as the campaign “Made in Rwanda” encourages women to found and lead their own companies (Staude 2018). Additionally, the government supports women in business with accessible favourable loans, training and the integration into networks that potentially aid women to make business contacts (Staude 2018).


Even though this sounds very promising, it has to be noted that some of the new pieces of legislation passed with a high percentage of female parliamentarians also include provisions that might deteriorate the situation of women in Rwanda in some cases: The Labour Law, passed 2009, prohibits Gender-Based Discrimination and sets the objective of equal pay for men and women, but it initially also cut down remuneration for maternity leave in half, therefore leaving women in more precarious positions compared to before in case of a pregnancy (Burnet 2019: Law No.13/2009, Art. 49,52). This decision was later reversed, so that women kept receiving the full remuneration pay, but it shows that not all legislation passed under a government that prescribed itself to protect women’s rights and gender equality is indeed improving women’s rights from every point of view. It is a simplification to believe that women vote by default for female-friendly legislation and policies - in Rwanda's case, political affiliation plays a significantly more important role in the voting behaviour of female parliamentarians (Abott & Malunda 2016; Burnet 2019; Devlin & Elgie 2008). Especially the international press and discourse seems to forget this sometimes when reporting about the unique 30%-quota. Even though the first female majority in a national parliament is a big achievement, the assumption that this automatically translates to mainly female-friendly legislation is a naive one to make.


And it does not stop there – even if female-friendly legislation is in place, this does not imply its flawless realisation. In private life and households, gender stereotypes of the man being the breadwinner and the woman the homekeeper are still being acted on (Staude 2018; Warner 2016). Female politicians, who create laws and work on shaping the political reality by day, are often still expected to perform household duties once they come home to their families, as Justine Uvuza, a Rwandan social justice lawyer who has also worked in government contexts in Rwanda , explains in a newspaper interview (Warner 2016). As feminism came from “outside” Rwanda, with little to no adequate adaptation to Rwandan society, it seemingly persists to be a foreign concept not fitting for the everyday life of society – despite the introduction of female-friendly legislation (Warner 2016). Or is this just a Western interpretation of societal processes in a non-Western country, failing to recognise nuanced change in a culture not fully understood? Just because in a Western interpretation of feminism the assigning of women to the household goes against gender equality values, does it mean that in Rwandan society, feminism is a neglected concept? Or is the abolishment of stereotypical gender roles the only logical consequence of a true feminist movement? [2] Surely, there are many different ways to answer these questions, as there are many different ways to understand gender equality and feminist activity.


Nsekonziza Miriam, former director and now regular adviser and member of Root Foundation Rwanda, contradicts the idea that feminism would still be a foreign and disintegrated concept in the Rwandan society. “The integration of women into politics and leadership positions started 20 years ago. And as of today, women’s rights and gender equality are values that Rwandans strive for as well as citizens of other African or Western countries. It is more so the way of implementation of the ‘feminism’ concept that is crucial for societal change”, Miriam says. This implies that it is simply not enough to create laws and then wait for change to happen. Rather, it needs customisation to fit the Rwandan society. Miriam also acknowledges the importance of laws and regulations in setting a general framework, but she is of the opinion that the effects of equal treatment of men and women have to be brought to the community-based living of many Rwandans ideally via small grassroots organisations. “And”, she adds, “it should be remembered that societal change takes time. Old values and cultural habits cannot transform overnight. Instead, it is necessary to accommodate them to the lifestyle many Rwandans lead: concentrating on smaller communities.”


By taking on Miriam’s point of view, it becomes evident that feminism in Rwanda transforms into somewhat of a translatory task: How can female empowerment be integrated and translated into daily tasks of everyday life? Simply “putting” (and allowing) women in leadership positions in businesses or in politics is a vital step in order to enhance women’s empowerment in Rwanda, but it surely is not sufficient on its own. If not handled with sensitivity and awareness of prevailing values and traditions in the Rwandan culture, the colossal task of increasing gender equality in the whole society might backfire, Miriam warns. Feminism is not only seen as the idea to increase female empowerment, but sometimes becomes a battle cry for women articulating hatred towards men on social media and in everyday life on social media. This may stir up a “we against them” narrative for both Rwandan men and women, making the effort to actually incorporate more gender equality into the Rwandan society increasingly difficult, Miriam points out. Therefore, she says, she would not necessarily call herself a feminist – even though her everyday work focuses on increasing the awareness for female empowerment, aiding women with more skills to run their own households, communities and then, eventually, society. In this way, feminism is not just a foreign line of thought anymore, inscribed in the new constitution, but becomes a Rwandan concept too through and through: women’s empowerment does not need to be called “feminist” to actually be feminist.


By integrating the 30%-quota for decision-making positions in politics and the commitment to ensure equal rights for men and women into the constitution of Rwanda, the country can act as a role model in terms of policy design. But it is not enough to reduce the discussion about feminism to laws, policies and regulations either and to forget about the role their fruitful implementation plays. While some aspects of gender equality-related policies are successful in implementation, as in governance, economic empowerment or health, the overall awareness of what “gender equality” means is still “poorly” rated, which leads to the persistence of conflict and violence within families and communities (Haguruka 2021). Gender Based Violence continues to be one of the areas in society with the greatest disparities between the political aim of its abolishment and the reality: ineffective response mechanisms and insufficient prevention (Gender Monitoring Office 2021; Haguruka 2021). Even though female empowerment in business is working fairly well, the majority of women still take on jobs in fields that are traditionally more associated with female labour, such as hairdressing or tailoring, which pay significantly less than more “traditionally masculine” jobs which boys and men are more likely to take on – and that way, the gender pay gap gets reinforced (Gender Monitoring Office 2021). Concerning education, there is also room for improvement left. While no gender-related differences were observed for education on the primary school level recently, women and girls take on higher education significantly less than their male fellow students and are also less likely to complete their higher education courses with a degree (Haguruka 2021).


It becomes obvious that, while there is much attention on the topic of gender equality and female empowerment in Rwanda, it needs the development of strategies that suit the society and communities which the substantial theoretical concepts are applied to. Only then, real, sustainable change can be created. It is not enough to generate good publicity surrounding the fulfilment of SDG 5, if the implementation is lacking. The case of Rwanda shows that change is possible – but might take more time and different approaches than obvious under first glance.



Bibliography

Ballington, J. et al. (2012). Empowering Women for Stronger Political Parties. UNDP. https://www.undp.org/publications/empowering-women-stronger-political-parties (last accessed: 5 May 2023).


Burnet, J. E. (2019). Women’s Political Representation in Rwanda. Anthropology Faculty Publications, 15, 1-17.


Devlin, C. & Elgie, R. (2008). The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda. Parliamentary Affairs, 61 (2), 237-254.


Freedom House (2022). Freedom in the world 2022: Rwanda. https://freedomhouse.org/country/rwanda/freedom-world/2022. (last accessed: 3 May 2023).


Gender Monitoring Office (2021). Annual Report 2020-2021. https://gmo.gov.rw/fileadmin/user_upload/reports/GMO_ANUAL_REPORT_2020-2021.pdf (last accessed: 30 May 2023).


Haguruka (2021). Analysis of the Effectiveness of the Implementation of the Rwandan Key Gender Equality Related Laws, Policies and Initiatives. http://haguruka.org.rw/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Effectiveness-of-Gender-Equality-Related-Laws-Policies.pdf (last accessed: 1 June 2023).


Salami, M. (2013, September 23). African women are blazing a feminist trail – why don't we hear their voices? The Guardian (last accessed: 5 May 2023).https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/african-women-rwanda-feminism


Staude, L. (2018, November 27). Der Fortschritt ist weiblich. Frauenwunder in Ruanda. Deutschlandfunk Kultur. https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/frauenwunder-in-ruanda-der-fortschritt-ist-weiblich-100.html (last accessed: 3 May 2023).


Warner, G. (2016, July 29). It's The No. 1 Country For Women In Politics — But Not In Daily Life. npr.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/07/29/487360094/invisibilia-no-one-thought-this-all-womans-debate-team-could-crush-it?t=1647550567816. (Last accessed: 5 May 2023).


Sources of Law

Law No. 59/2008 on Prevention and Punishment of Gender-Based Violence (2008). https://gmo.gov.rw/fileadmin/user_upload/laws%20and%20policies/Law_No59- 2008_on_the_Prevention_and_Punishment_of_Gender-Based_Violence.pdf (last accessed: 5 May 2023).



Law No. 13/2009 Law regulating labour in Rwanda (2009). https://www.ilo.org/dyn/travail/docs/523/NEW%20LABOUR%20LAW%20N13.2009%20O F%2027.5.2009.pdf (last accessed: 5 May 2023).


Revised National Gender Policy (2021). https://www.migeprof.gov.rw/fileadmin/user_upload/Migeprof/Publications/Guidelines/Revi sed_National_Gender_Policy-2021.pdf (last accessed: 3 May 2023).


The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (2003). https://web.archive.org/web/20090325021301/http://www.cjcr.gov.rw/eng/constitution_eng.d oc (last accessed: 3 May 2023).





[1] Although we are aware that there are more than the two biological genders assigned at birth, which are also sometimes called “sex”, in this article “gender” concentrates on the male and female gender and “feminism” focuses on female equity and equality, as the bespoke Rwandan laws and regulations discussed concentrate on women only and there is no data available concerning the situation of people who identify themselves outside the male – female categorisation.

[2] Some would argue so, and go even further to demand the complete abolishment of gender as a concept (see, for example, Judith Butler). But as this is more of a theoretical demand and as of now not really compatible with political reality in Rwanda, this line of thought will be ignored in this article.

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