Rwandan women have secured big gains in the halls of power, but challenges remain.
Crowds of police officers and nurses converged in a room painted with bright alphabet letters at a hospital in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. A plush frog and a couple of dolls with Afros lay on the table, props that might be used by a child to entertain herself while her mother seeks care or to act out a haunting scene of abuse for a counselor.
The Isange One Stop Centre is just the first in a growing, countrywide network of clinics where survivors of sexual violence can seek medical treatment, counseling services, and legal help filing claims against their attackers. The design is intended to ensure that the patient has to tell her story only once.
Before we stepped into the center, we'd spent an hour with Rwanda's top police commander, Inspector General Emmanuel Gasana. A wide-chested, muscular man, he peppered his comments with surprising phrases like "prevention mechanisms" and "gender budgeting."
"When we first started this gender-based violence work," he said, "we started to see the numbers [of reported attacks] going up. I was asking all the time, What's happening? But because of the campaign, it moved things." Women began to see attacks on them as crimes and, very gradually, as traumas they'd endured for which they shouldn't feel ashamed, Gasana explained. Given his gold-decorated epaulets and pants tucked into polished boots, the words seemed incongruous. But he delivered them with an obvious sense of pride. Community-policing committees—90,000 civilians across the country, he noted—are also on the case, charged with maintaining security.
Twenty years after a genocide, these efforts are evidence of the impact of Rwanda's new vanguard of leaders: women who have played a central role in all aspects of the country's rebuilding. The One Stop Centre and the broader system of trained officers the police are putting in place are the consequence of a major push to make good on the government's policy of zero tolerance for sexual violence.
New Laws and Protections
The most famous example of strides for Rwandan women came in 2008, when Rwanda became the first country ever to have a female majority in parliament. That same year, the legislature adopted a progressive law making domestic violence illegal and mandating harsh prison terms for rape.
"We don't want to just make a law," Judith Kanakuze, who led the bill's drafting, said in a prescient 2005 interview. She wanted to change behavior—to stop men from beating their partners and stop women from tolerating the beating. Kanakuze saw the law as one element in a larger strategy to change cultural expectations that were dangerous for women.
In years prior, Rwanda's parliament had passed pivotal laws enabling women to own land and daughters to inherit property. The legislature's newly formed Forum for Parliamentary Women played a central role in both bills.In subsequent elections, female members of parliament widened their margin. Last September they picked up even more seats and now hold 64 percent of them. Thirty percent is a given—the quota set in the post-genocide constitution to boost women's representation throughout the government. Credit for pushing the percentage beyond that minimum goes primarily to the political parties, which placed women prominently on their candidate slates. Most influentially, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by President Paul Kagame, mandated that its lineup be 50 percent female.
Power to the Capable
The decision to focus on women's equality "is embedded within the RPF," said Christopher Kayumba, a lecturer at the National University of Rwanda and political pundit. It's a matter not only of rights but of practicality. "Kagame isn't pushing for women just for the sake of it. He's mostly interested in capable people."
In 1994 Rwanda was demolished and grieving, its coffers empty and coffins full. The post-genocide government had to hand off responsibilities to dedicated party members who had proved to be talented managers earlier when the RPF was organizing after decades in exile.
Aloisea Inyumba was 29 when she became Minister of Gender and Social Affairs. Fatuma Ndangiza worked beside Inyumba as they reconstructed the ministry. For a year the new government staff were paid with food. "But we were so committed," Ndangiza explained. She went on to describe how Inyumba, with her background in fund-raising for the RPF, "had this idea that women should never be beggars. She didn't want women to see themselves as victims but to be powerful. She said, 'After all, if our mothers have brought us up to this level, why can't Rwandan women be economically empowered actors?'"
Some women balk at having their work recognized as significant because of their gender. One high-level official grumpily waved away any discussion of her achievements as characteristic of "women's triumphs" in Rwanda. But the next generation understands the importance of the acknowledgement.
Written By: Swanee Hunt and Laura Heaton
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