With a higher proportion of women in Parliament than any other country, Rwanda seems to be a model of equal representation and empowerment. But politicians and rights campaigners say the nation’s women still struggle to be heard.
Tattered political party flags still hang in shop windows around Kigali, 12 days after Rwandans reelected President Paul Kagame to serve a third seven-year term on August 4.
Many women living and working in Rwanda’s capital genuinely believe Kagame will fulfill his campaign promises of gender advancement, such as improving women’s access to loans, passing new laws to prevent discrimination against women and achieving gender parity in the information and communication technology sector by 2020. But in a large, dimly lit office on the southwestern edge of town, one woman says that for 17 years the president’s regime has systematically silenced opposition – especially when it comes from women.
Diane Shima Rwigara, 35, was the first Rwandan woman to run for president as an independent – and the only woman in the August race – before she was disqualified. The fact that Rwanda has the world’s highest proportion of women in Parliament does not mean the country is comfortable with women in power, she says. Kagame may be credited with ending a horrific genocide and improving the country’s economic growth and maternal mortality rates, but Rwigara warns that the president’s increasingly authoritarian stance could further oppress women, rather than empower them.
“I don’t believe in the lie being sold to the world that Rwandan women have a voice – we don’t,” she says. “We’re only allowed to do or say certain things as dictated by the ruling party. If you don’t, you pay a high price.”
For Rwigara, that price was her bid for the presidency. Her nomination was excluded when the electoral commission said she didn’t have enough names to endorse her candidacy, a charge she rejects. “When I finally submitted my papers, the number of signatures were almost double the required number of 650 – I had over 1,100 signatures,” she says. “If Rwanda was a place fair to women I would not have been treated the way I was while trying to run.”
The harassment didn’t end there. Rwigara says the ruling party tried to discredit her by releasing fake nude pictures online, but Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) denied any involvement. Some of her family’s businesses have been shut down and bank accounts frozen without justification, she says, while members of her movement have been temporarily jailed and threatened by the police.
While observers have long recommended reforms to the country’s electoral laws to become more inclusive of candidates, changes in the National Electoral Commission’s regulations have been slow, and critics say the drip-feed pace of reforms has been to Kagame’s advantage. Theogene Rudasingwa, Kagame’s former chief of staff, says there is a systematic bias to ensure the incumbent remains in power for life.
But Kagame’s backers dismiss critics’ claims of a power grab. They argue his continued rule could mean stronger rights and better opportunities for women. Alvera Mukabaramba, a presidential candidate in 2010 and the current minister of state for social affairs and social protection, believes Kagame’s incumbency symbolizes greater inclusion for women.
“The reelection means people believe there will be development and there’ll be greater empowerment of our women,” says Mukabaramba, who is a member of the small opposition movement, the Party for Progress and Concord.
“The policies of our government are designed to give women greater social and economic rights because we are the majority.”
Partly due to decades of ethnic strife that peaked with the 1994 genocide when, over 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered and more than 2 million displaced, women now make up 52 percent of Rwanda’s population of 11.6 million.
The gender shift in the country’s post-genocide population forced a change in its political dynamics, from power based on ethnicity and masculinity to a politics without ethnic bias and more inclusive of women. This has led to a greater gender balance in decision-making, in line with the 2003 Constitution, which requires that women occupy at least 30 percent of senior posts in public institutions. Now over 60 percent of Rwanda’s Parliament is female, a far higher proportion than the global average, which shows less than a quarter of elected seats occupied by women.
Rwanda’s past female-dominated parliaments have made significant gains in women’s legal and socioeconomic rights, such as amending laws to allow equal inheritance and increased property rights. But research by University of Oxford affiliates Pamela Abbott and Dixon Malunda suggests the gendered change in leadership has not always translated to concrete gains for women and notes that Rwanda still has some way to go in changing discriminatory attitudes toward women in politics.
Sarah Jackson, deputy regional director of Amnesty International East Africa, says Rwanda’s political space remains restrictive for women.
“Women face as many obstacles as men when they challenge the status quo – [including when] trying to run as an opposition presidential candidate,” she says.
After her experience, Rwigara is getting out of politics. She believes her fight is now on a new front: confronting the government’s use of fear to suppress criticism. Last month she launched the People’s Salvation Movement–Itabaza, a grassroots organization focused on restoring people’s political and socioeconomic rights.
“We are calling on people to not fear, because fear is the main problem in Rwanda. We are calling on people to speak out, stand up and strive for our rights,” she says.
As Rwanda looks ahead to another seven years under Kagame’s leadership, Rwigara is one among a small but dedicated band of activists and advocacy groups determined to keep working to give women more say in the country’s decision-making process. And the next chance is coming soon – Rwanda has parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018.
“Since 2012, we’ve had a Women Can Do It program that encourages young women to become leaders in their communities,” says Jeanne D’Arc Kanakuze, chairwoman of Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe, an umbrella group of more than 50 women’s organizations. “And we will continue to encourage women to stand as political candidates so they can participate in things such as the elections in 2018.”