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Perspectives on the Evolving Role of Women in Rwanda
Resources for better learning and research insights on gender equality in the decades following genocide
In 1994, 100 days of slaughter resulted in a death toll between 800,000 and 1 million people in Rwanda. The mass killings occurred in two phases. First, lists of targeted people were distributed to death squads. Then, two days later, militias were ordered to exterminate every Tutsi.
Rwanda’s surviving population was about 60-70 percent female. Women were largely uneducated in pre-genocide Rwanda. It was generally unheard of for women to own land or take a job outside the home. Now, healing and rebuilding the country depended on them.
Rwanda portrayed as example of gender equality around globe
Suddenly, the workplace opened to Rwandan women. The new government, led by President Paul Kagame, decreed under a new constitution that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. Educational opportunities for girls were supported by the government, and women would be appointed to leadership roles, like government ministers and police chiefs.
In today’s Rwandan parliament, women hold more than half the seats – a record unmatched by any other country in the world.
Internationally, many newspapers* hailed the development of a new role of women in Rwandan politics, infrastructure and economic recovery:
> “Rwandan president urges women to stand for public office,” according to a headline from the Xinhua News Agency (April 13, 2003): “Speaking at the opening of a four-day national workshop on 'Enhancing Women’s Participation in the Electoral Process and Good Governance', President Kagame said that ‘We shall continue to appeal to women to offer themselves as candidates and also to vote for gender sensitive men who will defend and protect their interests."
> “New constitution gives a lift to Rwandan women,” declared a headline from the Irish Times (August 3, 2010). “After being brought around village halls around the country, with input from women and women’s rights groups, the new constitution was passed in 2003. It provided for 30 per cent of seats in parliament to be given to women. In the general election the same year, 55 per cent of seats went to women, the highest proportion in the world.”
> “Women rebuild a ravaged nation,” noted the Toronto Star (September 8, 2007). “In putting so many female faces in government, Rwanda – despite its poverty, its lack of freedom in areas such as press and civil liberties, and a long history of male domination and chauvinism – has done something many political activists groups and feminists in Canada have been working toward for years but have so far failed to achieve.”
>Al Jazeera lauded “Rwanda’s female touch” (September 5, 2008): The UN has praised Rwanda as a beacon for female development in Africa and – a continent where politics is, more often than not, the domain of ageing men.
“Female literacy has risen from 10 per cent before the genocide to 50 per cent and the empowerment and education of women are at the forefront of what the government calls its '2020 vision' – the movement to a modern, knowledge based economy by 2020.
“The country's new era of equal opportunity has also coincided with unprecedented economic development.”
> “Women run the show in a recovering Rwanda” reported the Washington Post (October 27, 2008): “Here, women are not only driving the economy – working on construction sites, in factories and as truck and taxi drivers – they are also filling the ranks of government.
“One result is that Rwanda has banished archaic patriarchal laws that are still enforced in many African societies, such as those that prevent women from inheriting land. The legislature has passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, while a committee is now combing through the legal code to purge it of discriminatory laws.”
But does legislating gender equality in public result in gender equality in private?
More recently, an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast (“Outside In,” July 29, 2016) chronicled the experiences of the first all-women debate team in Rwanda.
According to the story, there was an assumption that the head of a co-ed high school debate club should be a boy. When Mireille Umutoni, then a high school student, would question why the head couldn’t be a girl, the she would be told "That's for Americans. You're trying to be an American."
This charge implied that being "American" meant acting out of desire for personal gain rather than what was good for the country. And being an assertive, ambitious female was perceived as selfish.
"They'd say, 'You don't belong in Rwanda,' " Umutoni recalled. " 'You don't even belong in Africa!' "
It was a sentiment rippling throughout women’s personal lives. A female politician might stand up in parliament, advocating for the needs of poor women or the victims of sexual violence, but was expected to remain subservient and docile in her own home. Many women experienced serving in public office as a patriotic duty to fulfill on top of her existing domestic duties, rather than as a means of liberation. The notion of a Rwandan women’s movement was scandalous. Feminism was for Westerners.
Despite these attitudes, Umutoni went on to become head of the country’s first all-women’s debate club at the country’s first all-women's college. But the team did dismally in their first competition, for two reasons: “One was that they hadn't yet mastered the debating rules. The second, more embarrassing reason was that they had acted like ‘girls’ – specifically, the traditional stereotype of Rwandan women.”
Turns out, submissiveness isn’t the way to win a debate.
Like the generation of women before them rebuilt their country, these young Rwandan women found they had to rebuild their perceptions of themselves if they wanted to wanted to get ahead. So they adopted some interesting and inspiring exercises to start strengthening their self-confidence to believe they were strong and powerful enough that they could – that they would – win.
(No spoilers here! Listen to the podcast to find out what happened for the debate team…)
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In 2008, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute partnered with IBUKA, the umbrella organization representing survivors of the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide.* Together, the groups made a commitment to conduct, record, collect and share testimonies of witnesses and survivors of the atrocity.
This partnership formed with the goal to not only preserve the testimonies but also to use them, along with the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses contained in the Institute’s archive, to develop educational programs for use throughout the world.
“Forgiveness is the only way forward in these matters,” Tutsi survivor Valerie Nyirarudodo insisted in her USC Shoah Foundation Institute testimony (view a segment of her interview here). “We must help one another. We must learn to live together in unity in good times, in good times as they once were.”
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies. Learn more and see the testimonials.
Through partnerships with more than 700 universities around the world, ProQuest disseminates and archives the most comprehensive and trusted collection of 3.8 million graduate theses and dissertations, with 1.7 million in full text, growing by more than 90,000 new works each year.
Post -conflict reconstruction and women in Rwanda, 1994–2008
Reggy, Anyango. Howard University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2009. 3354885.
Rwandan women and the 1994 genocide: The effect on their social and political roles
Doan, Lisa A.. Georgetown University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2010. 1483562.
Triumph over tragedy: International pressure, women's movements, and empowerment in post-conflict states
Gunasekara, Vagisha I.. Purdue University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 3545236.
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