The tiny East African nation’s Parliament was seated last week and women dominated the room. In September elections they took 51 of 80 seats in Parliament – and at 64 percent, the country has the highest female representation of any nation on earth.
That’s enough to make most Western nations blush: female MPs make up just 22.5 percent of the U.K. House of Commons, and 17.8 percent of the U.S. Congress, figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union show. Australia’s new cabinet consists of only one woman.
Most of Rwanda’s female parliamentarians remember a time, before the genocide of 1994, when things were different. “We were for a long time a society in which women were not given political space even if they had the education,” explains Marie Josee Kankera, an MP and former deputy speaker. She worked in civil society before the war, but says that “competing for decision-making positions was not very easy”.
But the 100-day war had a perverse effect of redefining opportunities. By the time fighting ended, almost 1 million Rwandans had been killed and the population was more than 70 percent female. “We had so many widows, and those widows were mobilized to work hard, because they had to get enough income to feed their kids,” Kankera recalls. “We were mobilized to contribute to the redevelopment of our country, to increase our economic capabilities, to finalize our education. After the war, women, girls, boys, men worked together on the rebuilding of the country.”
That inclusive reconstruction process required direction from the top, and it came from the divisive President Paul Kagame who, afraid of further faultlines emerging, turned his attention to social integration.
“[The issue] is ideological. It starts with… wanting the whole population to participate, women as well,” the president tells This is Africa. “From the beginning it is a rights issue. Women have the same rights as men do, and they are as capable of contributing to the wellbeing of the country as men do.”
By 2003 Kagame had engineered a new constitution for Rwanda, heavily focused on issues of social equality and discrimination, which mandated that 30 percent of all decision-making positions must be held by women. “We are aware that historically the ground has not been level. Where women are starting from is not where men are starting from, so we had to create some kind of balance by really trying to uplift women,” he explains.
Today’s female parliamentary representation, at over 60 percent, comes in at more than double the quota. And with many women having returned to school and university after fighting ended, Kankera argues that the level of education among female politicians is now higher than their male counterparts.
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