A vote of confidence for African women

When genocide tore through Rwanda in the early 1990s, women endured a particularly tough struggle. But in September, Rwanda elected a parliament with 64% of seats held by women – more than in any other country in the world

The exterior walls of Rwanda’s parliamentary building in Kigali still bear the pockmarks of bullet and shell holes sustained during the bloody conflict nearly 20 years ago. Set against the city’s now rapidly changing skyline, they are a powerful reminder of its tragic past; chaotic days when the entire government was forced to flee the capital.

When the killing ended, many of Rwanda’s widows faced a future of destitution. There were ten times as many widows than widowers left – almost 50,000 – yet existing laws did not allow women to inherit land or property. But as the country turns the page on its history and forges a new Rwanda out of the ashes, women are playing a central role in its recovery, and it seems that Rwanda’s horror-filled past may actually have helped inform a more promising future.

John Mutamba, an official at the Ministry of Gender and Women in Development, said: “Men who grew up in exile know the experience of discrimination. Gender is now part of our political thinking. We appreciate all components of our population across all the social divides, because our country has seen what it means to exclude a group.”

The country’s post-genocide constitution laid out a requirement for there to be 30% female MPs, and in 2008 the nation became the first in the world in which women claim a parliamentary majority. Fast forward to this September and the ballot results showed yet more progress. 26 female MPs were elected in addition to the 24 seats reserved for women, genocide survivors, widows, farmers and even former rebels.

Rwanda’s 64% compares impressively with the 45% female representation in Sweden and the UK’s 23% – all in a country where women only got the vote in 1961. But this is not some sort of national PR exercise; the statistics represent true depth. The increased representation of women in Rwanda has led to tangible policy changes and from that, progress on the ground.

As well as playing a part in lifting more than one million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2011, women played a central role in drafting a family bill, meaning that Rwandan women were given rights to inherit for the first time. Before, couples’ houses were always owned by the husband and by a woman’s in-laws on occasion of her husband’s death. Now, women can inherit and own property and children of both sexes have equal inheritance entitlements.

“Gender is now part of our political thinking. We appreciate all components of our population across all the social divides, because our country has seen what it means to exclude a group” – John Mutamba

Rwanda’s average life expectancy has risen by ten years in the past decade, infant mortality has dropped from 1,071 deaths in 100,000 births to 476 last year, and Rwanda was praised at the 2012 World Health Organisation’s annual assembly in Geneva for reducing maternal mortality by more than half. Rwanda’s new female MPs have been instrumental in driving forward this remarkable chain of change.

Elsewhere in Africa, women are making significant gains too. Joyce Banda made history in April 2012 when she became Malawi’s first female president and only the second woman to lead an African nation, joining Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and now Senegal’s Aminata Touré, too.

With a strong track record of fighting for women’s rights, Banda was plunged into the spotlight following the sudden death of her predecessor. In an interview with the Guardian, she said her own experience of an abusive marriage had formed her impassioned belief in the importance of women’s rights and that being a traditional African woman had helped her deal with the burden suddenly thrust upon her.

“It’s heavy. But I am able to carry it,” she said. “Why? Because I’m an African woman. An African woman carries heavy loads anyway. That’s how we are trained; we are brought up that nothing is unbearable. I use that now, positively. I use that now to have the thick skin that I have, and not fear, and move forward, and push.”

On finding herself being mocked, ironically by the country’s First Lady, for having once worked as a market mandasi (fritter) vendor – an experience she has in common with 80% of Malawian women – Banda simply replied: “I’m proud of it because the majority of women in Malawi are like us: mandasi sellers.”

The African Union Commission now has its first female chairperson in South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and two African women have now won Nobel peace prizes: Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, who helped bring an end to a 14-year conflict in Liberia by mobilising women to pray each day on a dusty football field opposite a fish market in Monrovia.

Yet much more needs to be done. The executive director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, last year called for “stronger commitment by leaders to increase women’s participation in politics,” acknowledging that there is still a necessity to reverse what remains a huge patriarchal bias in Africa.

However, both individuals and organisations are making inroads. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which works to establish representative democracy around the world, has been gathering data on women in politics since 1975. IPU representatives have recently worked with female parliamentarians in Rwanda as well as female politicians in many other countries.

Zeina Hilal, programme officer in the gender partnership programme, told Positive News that the latest Rwandan election result reflected an increasingly “strong presence of women on the political landscape.”

“Fundamental to the success of Rwandan women in politics is their innate ability and willingness to work together across party and cultural lines for the common good”

“A lot of effort has also been made in sensitising parliament to gender issues with IPU support, whilst Rwandan society too has become much more receptive to women as politicians,” she said.

Hilal and IPU colleagues were involved in establishing Rwanda’s first caucus, the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians, which was formed of women from across the country’s political parties in 1996. Ten years later, the forum introduced a bill tackling gender-based violence – something which was previously seen as a norm in Rwandan society. By spending two years planning the legislation and gathering input from experts on the subject as well as their constituents, the women helped guarantee its success. The MPs also considered carefully how to win the support of their male colleagues given the bill’s sensitivity, cleverly framing the legislation as offering protection to their mothers and daughters rather than targeting their marriages.

It seems it is this which is fundamental to the success of Rwandan women in politics: not the fallout from the genocide, not western intervention, not men giving them permission, but an innate ability and willingness to work together across party and cultural lines for the common good.

Of course, for all the positive change, Rwanda still faces its challenges. Though the constitution is progressive in terms of gender representation, human rights organisations have said they suspect intimidation, restrictions on freedom of speech and that opposition groups are being suppressed. More recently, tension with the Democratic Republic of the Congo has escalated.

Still, while many western feminists may not think to look to Africa for inspiration, it may be precisely the continent’s troubled past which is creating the chance for such exciting change.

“Many countries which are emerging from conflict take the opportunity to correct this imbalance in gender representation, and this is very positive,” said Hilal. “We have clear evidence that women, when they enter parliament, are able to highlight issues which have not been given the same importance in the past: social security, equality in employment, violence against women, issues related to children and childcare. Women have a different perspective on life: not better or worse, but they bring to the fore issues which are of fundamental importance to the communities they represent.”

As the walls of Kigali’s parliament remain robust despite the scars of war, so Africa’s women refuse to be bowed by the constant challenges that have faced them in the past. The bravery of these political forerunners reminds us that women’s participation in government is absolutely essential to building and sustaining democracy: a lesson not just for Africa, but for people the world over.

Rose Harrison Uiso, 28, student, Tanzania

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Rose Harrison Uiso © Lucy Purdy

“The patriarchal system is the biggest challenge for African girls, something they face from early childhood. Men consider women to be weak, family caretakers and people who receive orders from men. We need to eliminate these cultural beliefs that undermine women. The whole society should be involved in all aspects of empowering women. Despite all these challenges, I think Africa is developing a positive future for women. There has been a change in policies over the years to support girls’ education, for example.”




Alice Iribagiza Rwema, 25, communications officer, Rwanda

Alice Iribagiza Rwema LOW_RES

Alice Iribagiza Rwema © Lucy Purdy

“Though tremendous positive change in attitudes towards women has taken place in Africa, women are often still overprotected, to the extent that their bodies, thoughts, minds, choices and ideas are controlled and that some harmful practices such as female genital mutilation are even polished up as ‘benefiting’ women.

“But as more African women realise they are being represented politically, more women are turning up in elections, both candidates and voters. For example, in Kenya, the passage of the bill prohibiting female genital mutilation can be attributed to an increase in the number of women in power. Women have also been behind most of the legislation that has brought Rwanda toward ensuring economic stability and social welfare.”


Jackie Kajabago, 35, works at a dentistry NGO, Uganda, lives in Tanzania

Jackie Kajabago1 LOW_RES

Jackie Kajabago © Lucy Purdy

“Though African women have made some progress, they still face hindrances in the form of the African culture, attitudes towards education and political and religious influences.
“I think that now women have more of a chance to engage in the political affairs of their countries, education for girls and gender equality are being emphasised. We now see African women being speakers, heads of the judiciary and other positions. In order to bring about huge developments, the African woman needs to be viewed as she truly is: a capable person in all aspects.”