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Rwanda’s Political Climate Favours Women’s Rights

FRIDAY FILE: Since the end of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, there have been tremendous gains for women, particularly on the political front.

By Kathambi Kinoti

Rwandan President Paul Kagame was re-elected into office last September with an overwhelming majority vote of well over 90 percent. Kagame played a central role in putting an end to the horrific events of 1994 that saw between an eighth to a fifth Rwanda’s population massacred in a period of three months.

The country’s impressive 8.4 per cent annual economic growth rate has distinguished it from its East African neighbours and analysts say that it was a major contributing factor to Kagame’s re-election.

Political will

Women’s rights gains are another post-genocide victory for the country. Before the 2008 parliamentary elections, 49 per cent of legislators were women. After the elections, the figure rose to 56 per cent, unprecedented- at least in modern history- anywhere else in the world.

Sceptical perspectives attribute this success in large part to a lower male population as a result of the 1994 genocide. Even if this were the case initially – and many opinions beg to differ- it would not be sufficient to explain the increase in female legislators from the first post-genocide elections to the most recent.

During the reconstruction of Rwanda after the mid-1994 devastation, women’s rights were a priority for the Kagame-led government. The progress on this front cannot solely be attributed to the President – the concerted work of women’s rights organisations was instrumental – but he has played a critical role in promoting an environment beneficial for women’s rights. One major lesson from Rwanda’s experience is that political will plays a huge role in advancing women’s rights and needs to be actively and consistently courted. Mary Balikungeri heads the Rwandan Women’s Community Development Network (RWN), an organisation that was formed soon after the genocide to contribute to the reconstruction of Rwanda and ensure that women’s rights were central to the process. She expresses confidence that under the continued leadership of President Kagame, women can be assured of the political will necessary to foster greater growth in the area of women’s rights.

Enabling frameworks

Rwanda’s constitution, promulgated in 2003, prohibits gender-based discrimination. Its 1992 Family Code enhances the rights of women in marriage, divorce and inheritance. Women’s property rights have been legislatively secured in this agriculture-based society. Affirmative action for administrative and legislative governance positions is now part of Rwanda’s legal culture and women were key in advocacy in the immediate post-genocide period to ensure that women’s representation was a central goal in rebuilding the country.

According to Balikungeri, “Rwanda’s efforts have been focused around ensuring legal frameworks and institutional mechanisms that work effectively to respond to the needs of its citizens through social welfare,economic empowerment, peace and security.”

She acknowledges that as in all other African countries, deeply ingrained cultural attitudes continue to disadvantage women and girls. Paradoxically,it is in African countries that the greatest success in getting women into political office, particularly through affirmative action has been registered. Uganda,Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique also have substantial numbers of women law-makers.

Rwanda’s experience demonstrates that laws and policies can take the lead in changing societal attitudes, and it challenges schools of thought that prefer to adopt a slower approach in changing people’s minds. Even before the genocide, Rwanda had a female Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana,who was assassinated in April 1994 in one of a series of events that precipitated the genocide. Nevertheless, women’s leadership was not the norm then. In Balikungeri’s estimation the increased number of women parliamentarians in recent years has sent out a powerful message that women can lead. “This is reflected in the increased number of women entering into the arenas of government administration,business and civil society,” she says. Presidential aspirant Victoire Ingabire does not agree that the relatively large numbers of women legislators have made a difference. IPS quotes her as saying: “There is still a long way to go in translating women’s nominal weight into [an]effective decision making share.”

Precedents in international spaces

The Rwandan genocide is almost synonymous with the widespread rape that women survivors endured during the period. In coming to terms with their experiences, they have worked to ensure that local and international justice mechanisms work for women and address sexual violence as a manifestation of war that is often downplayed. Their experiences helped shape international criminal jurisprudence: It was at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1998 that rape was first recognised as an act of genocide and torture and punished. Rwandan women‘s rights organisations, in conjunction with international allies, were instrumental in achieving this milestone: They successfully petitioned the Tribunal to accept the addition of rape charges and evidence in one case that resulted in a conviction and stiff sentence. The judgement in that case serves as a precedent to other international war tribunals- and hopefully to regional and local courts.

Not all good news

Paul Kagame’s presidency has undoubtedly been positive for advancing the women’s rights legislative and policy agenda. His economic development record is envied by Rwanda’s neighbours. However his regime has been accused of silencing dissent and thus violating a principal tenet of democracy. According to Freedom House, despite a 2002 law that forbids state censorship, there are strong restrictions on the media. Journalists face arbitrary and illegal arrests and detention.

In the run-up to the 2010 presidential polls, Human Rights Watch chronicled incidents that suggested a deliberate muffling of opposition to the incumbent President Kagame.The only woman contender is cited as one of the victims of this repression. During the genocide, some FM radio stations made inflammatory broadcasts on the newly liberalised airwaves, and the hate media’s role in the genocide is widely recognised. Rwanda is yet to find the perfect balance between responsible journalism and censorship.

The government justifies the close supervision of the media as a measure against a repeat of the irresponsible broadcasts of Rwanda’s darkest period. However, critics say that these measures were also calculated to ensure that Kagame’s political opponents got little coverage before the elections.

The Commonwealth Election Observer Group reported that "Overall the poll was well organised and peaceful. However, there were some concerns regarding the lack of transparency of the results consolidation, a lack of critical opposition voices and problems faced by some media outlets."

In response, Balikungeri says that media criticism is inevitable, not only in the case of Rwanda’s presidential elections, but generally for all political processes throughout Africa. She urges that more focus be directed towards the positive energy that characterises much of post-genocide Rwanda. Acknowledging that there is still a long way to go to achieve the comprehensive respect and fulfillment of women’s rights,Balikungeri “advocates for community women’s spaces” over and above political space. In her analysis, women need their own spaces as a prerequisite to meaningfully participating in other spaces.

Rwanda has made impressive strides towards equality for women. The newly re-elected President and his government have consistently demonstrated the political will to respect and fulfill women’s rights. Reports of restrictions on press freedoms raise concerns about broader human rights and democratic values and fears of a claw back on women’s rights.Nevertheless, Rwanda’s women are celebrating and expecting more from the current political regime.