Advancement of women in almost any aspect of the country is often linked to pages and pages of parliamentary statutes which effectively take women’s rights more seriously or thought-provoking speeches by female celebrities at the UN headquarters. While such movements are to be applauded, much of women’s march to total gender equality is actually made possible by the people behind the scenes, such as female office clerks who come into office to earn a living and female teachers who continue to do what they love to do even if their salaries are not much to be bragged about.
Let us commemorate International Women’s Day by acknowledging those little steps that provide the momentum for the huge leaps forward.
What better way to acknowledge those little steps than by telling a story about a country which saw its people fallen and torn apart only to rise from the genocide that had befallen them. The story of Rwanda serves as a reminder to us on how successful one nation can be if the women are taken as seriously as the men.
After the 100-day genocide in 1994, Rwandan women made up 70% of the population as the men were either killed or exiled. Thus began the story of how the women rebuilt their own country.
However, the main point of this article isn’t to highlight the policy reforms or institution overhauls that had been taking place there. While they are both important to advance women’s involvement in running the country, there are also other, often overlooked, factors that have actually contributed to Rwanda’s triumph more than any other factor.
For one, we have to recognise how the people of Rwanda, despite the horrendous acts of ethnic-based violence that took place, re-fabricated their cultural and social dynamics with the people around them and adapted to those dynamics as if the newly-established norms had always been that way. For instance, they started adopting orphans irrespective of their ethnicities. The women even established informal support groups to help widows. Besides that, they even took the responsibility of taking care of homeless children. These steps are not in any way driven by the government or any institution for that matter. These were all changes by the Rwandan people themselves, especially women, to their own ways of thinking, without any clear persuasion for them to do so- something seemingly trivial but actually difficult, what with the memory of the genocide still fresh in their minds.
With the men severely shattered both emotionally and physically, the women took the initiative to provide for their families by getting jobs. Mind you, this was all happening in a traditionally patriarchal environment, where women can just get out of their houses and make their own work decisions independently. A past refugee, Mukeshimana, who now runs the Genocide Survivors Support Network in Newark, recalled her post-genocide experience of being an office manager for a construction company. She observed how many women applied for jobs at some building sites and, despite the men belittling them, managed to outperform their male co-workers.
Even in raising their children, the women of Rwanda also contribute to the country’s well-being by leaving a positive influence on their children. The genocide was the peak of the tension that had been running high between the Tutsis and the Hutus. Long before the massacre, many Tutsi single mothers had been living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Their misery in living as refugees as well as strength to continue to provide the best for their families eventually had a positive impact on their children. Today, many of Rwanda’s leaders were actually those children that had been living as refugees. This is what informal education at home can do.
In the political arena, this article wishes to highlight a little-known feature of the parliament. Although the government has implemented many policies that have pulled the country out of economic and social despair, recognition has to be given to the social standards that had been taking place in the meeting rooms.
Rwanda’s parliament has the highest percentage of women in the world. Some of these women lost their families, but yet they sit with the wives of the perpetrators. Suffice to say that this is symbolic of how committed the women of Rwanda are to establishing peace in the country.
Inyumba, another refugee, recalled the days when she travelled the world to raise funds for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the currently-ruling political party in Rwanda, the party which eventually brought order back to the country following the genocide. She did all of this while she was still in exile. Again, this is an example of how certain women in the country persistently fight for their causes out of their own independent will. Political standing aside, it does not matter what party it is as long as it fights for the country’s advancement.
To be fair, one doesn’t even need a political party to advocate change. This is shown by the establishment of the community-run judicial system in Rwanda called the “gacaca”. In these “gacaca” proceedings, low-profile cases are tried and the community is involved in determining what the offenders’ punishment should be. Such proceedings usually take place only under the shades of trees.
There is more to how Rwanda could motivate the fight for women’s empowerment than meets the eye. However, such motivation can come from just about anywhere. The lesson presented here is to start acknowledging people who are working to make the world better, no matter how minimal their efforts seem, and build on those efforts. Only then can remarkable victories be achieved.