April 7, 2019, marked the 25-year anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis, a brutal conflict where 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days, according to the UN estimates.
President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since 2000, lit a remembrance flame in the capital Kigali.
“In 1994, there was no hope, only darkness. Today, light radiates from this place,” Kagame said. “Rwanda became a family, once again. The arms of our people, intertwined, constitute the pillars of our nation. We hold each other up.”
The commemoration flame will burn for the next 100 days, the time span of the genocide that witnessed over one-tenth of the total Rwandan population, mainly Tutsi and some moderate Hutus, brutally murdered.
President Paul Kagame has lit the flame of Remembrance assisted by a generation of 25 years at the @Kigali_Memorial. The flame will burn for the next 100 days for the 25th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. #Kwibuk25 pic.twitter.com/SVKOsSvjyu
— Kwibuka Rwanda (@KwibukaRwanda) April 7, 2019
Since then, Rwanda has become a model for economic and gender development in the region. Infant mortality in Rwanda has halved and per capita GDP risen more than six-fold since 2000. According to the African Development Bank, Rwandan growth remains good at 7.2% in 2018.
Moreover, in recent years, the east African nation has consistently ranked among the top ten countries on the Global Gender Gap Index along with a handful of European countries.
Women make up 61% of the Rwandan parliament. In comparison, women make up just 23.8% of parliament members on average globally as of June 2018.
Women’s rise from the upheaval of war
“The 1994 genocide had a devastating impact on the country, in particular, it had a devastating impact on women,” says award-winning author and anthropologist Dr. Jennie Burnet, Associate Professor at Georgia State University. “Women were widely victimised through the genocide, both killed and also raped and sexually tortured”
In 1919, rape was declared as a war crime. Rape and sexual assault were also covered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1948 Convention against Genocide, the 1984 Convention against Torture, and customary international law.
However, rape was never prosecuted as a war crime till the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu as a part of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1997. The 1998 conviction of Akayesu helped establish rape and sexual violence as crimes against humanity and as tools of torture and genocide in an international court.
In the aftermath of the genocide, many of the survivors were women. In 1996, 70% of the Rwandan population was female and 50% of all households are headed by women, according to Binaifer Nowrojee’s report for the Human Rights Watch.
Before the genocide, women held few political offices, lacked inheritance rights to property and were prohibited from profit-making organisations. Like never before in Rwanda’s history, women became the centre of its recovery, changing politics and its economic progress.
Burnet attributes this to the ruling party Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) policy of mainstreaming women that they continued as they transitioned from a rebel movement to the new government and the 1980s Rwanda’s women’s movement that re-emerged quickly in the aftermath of war and advocated for women’s rights.
An example of this was the draft genocide law that was originally drafted in 1995. The first draft of the law placed rape and sexual violence in Category 4, along with crimes like property crimes. This outraged Rwandan women, particularly genocide and sexual violence survivors, who protested to have rape be counted as one of the most serious crimes. As a result, rape and sexual assault were listed as Category 1 crimes.
The combined efforts of the women’s movement and RPF government also helped push for the 1998 inheritance law that allowed equal inheritance for women. This was an instrumental policy as many women had no access to the ancestral property under Rwandan law after losing their brothers, husbands and fathers in the war.
Gender quotas and their effectiveness
Women held just one in five seats in the Rwandan parliament before 1994.
In 2003, 30% of all political seats were reserved for women. Exceeding expectations, women won 49% of the parliamentary. In 2008, Rwanda became the first country to pass the 50% threshold of women in parliament.
However, greater participation did not immediately mean greater legislative gains.
One of the earliest successes of the new female parliamentarians came almost five years after the introduction of gender quotas with the introduction of the 2008 anti gender-based violence law. The new law both defined what gender-based violence was in Rwanda and delineated various sorts of punishments.
Under this law, Rwanda became one of the few countries worldwide to make marital rape a crime.
“The high level of women in parliament obscures the fact that the parliament has very little power in terms of the executive branch in Rwanda,” says Marie E. Berry, leading political sociologist and Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Berry argues that the ability of Rwandan legislators, male or female, to shape and design policy is limited by whether or not the executive branch approves of the policy.
“Quotas work to increase women’s political representation but political representation is not the same thing as women’s power.”
The two women, Victoria Ingabire in 2010 and Diane Rwigara in 2017, who ran for office against Kagame were both incarcerated. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have long criticised Kagame’s government for muzzling dissent and disappearing political dissidents and journalists.
Furthermore, quotas serve as a loophole for the RPF to consolidate power. Since women’s seats don’t have a political party association, Berry finds that this has allowed RPF to have way more members in the parliament than it seems at first glance. The women in women’s seats are often RPF members or part of “shadow parties” that are purportedly non-RPF but are often linked to the RPF.
Despite limited legislative power, the high level of women and their visibility have started changing the social and cultural norms in the country, symbolically increasing women’s power over the years. According to Burnet, Rwandan women really feel like they have “found respect”.
Her research finds that women have a greater autonomy in family decision-making and are speaking up more in public forums. Socially, it is no longer acceptable in public venues to make denigrating comments about women. Women have also entered the workforce in large numbers. Rwanda now has one of the highest rates of female labor participation globally.
Research on quotas in India by Lori Beaman, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova, based on a randomised natural experiment, finds that female leadership has a “role model effect,” which results in increased aspirations and educational attainment for teenage girls.
Nevertheless, the aspiration and inspiration is creating a gap between expectations and reality among young Rwandan women who find themselves unable to get well paying jobs or escape the high levels of gender-based violence in the country.
Gender-based violence and intimate partner violence also remain a widespread issue in Rwanda. Studies show that people exposed to violence during the genocide are more likely to wage or perpetrate intimate partner violence because of the pervasiveness of trauma, increased availability of weapons and violence know-how.
In the case of Rwanda, there also a “backlash.” In her over 150 interviews of Rwandan women from all walks of life, Berry finds that as women begin to threaten the patriarchal status quo, there is an increased policing of women’s bodies in spaces where they are beginning to assert more rights.
Their increased power is seen by men as a threat to their own power.
“The biggest challenge facing women in Rwanda today is violence – violence at home, violence by state security forces, violence by partners, violence by family members and community members,” she says. “The pervasiveness of violence is an indication that some of the gains that women have made in politics have certainly not fundamentally changed ordinary women’s lives.”
The way forward
“Women’s participation in politics in Rwanda will go the direction of the entire country,” concludes Burnet. As long as the RPF remains committed to mainstreaming women and promoting their rights, progressive policies for women will continue.
The effectiveness of political quotas is mixed: the treatment of women is changing in Rwandan society; they are more respected, heard and given greater access to education, opportunity and property, but there is also a backlash as evidenced by the uptick in gender-based violence; there are more women in policy-making bodies than ever before but in the increasingly authoritarian RPF regime they have very little opportunity to shape policy that Kagame does not endorse.
Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist from India. She specialises in South Asian political economy, gender and security issues.