Women’s Human Rights in Rwanda Revisited

Story and photo by Lauren Mescon, FAWCO rep

 

In 2014, the FAWCO HR Team sponsored the first Strength of a Woman tour to Rwanda to learn about advancements in women's human rights in the country. Team member Lauren Mescon recently visited Rwanda and shares her experiences. While Rwanda has unquestionably made significant strides under President Paul Kagame's leadership, some accuse him of suppression of human rights to quell opposition and remain in power, and many Rwandan women remain marginalized. This article does not seek to reconcile these conflicts but rather to simply share Lauren's observations from her visit.

I was reading "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families" by Philip Gourevitch as I headed to Rwanda last summer. The book was written in the aftermath of the genocide, which occurred during 100 days in 1994 when it is estimated that more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed. The causes of the genocide are complex, stemming from the colonial system and an unnatural categorization of people based on their looks. I visited Rwanda to see the gorillas, but arriving 23 years after the genocide and three days before the national election opened my eyes to issues that, as Westerners, we only glimpse as filtered by the media.

The experience was nothing short of remarkable.

After the U.S. elections, witnessing Rwanda's election made me think of the campaigns from when I was a child: red, white and blue banners flying, live speeches and people excited about the opportunity to vote for their favorite candidate — not resigned to voting for the person they least dislike. From the capital, Kigali, to the remotest village with a single community center, there were campaigns, and banners, and kids with fliers, and street, bike and barrel decorations, all for incumbent President Paul Kagame and his party. Many critics question the "landslide" win of Kagame, saying it was impossible. My observations and interaction with local people indicated that it was possible; they seem to have a leader who puts them first and whom they believe in.

Which takes me to why Kagame is there in the first place: most of us were distant sideliners to the Rwandan genocide. Even today when I mention my trip, I get incredulous looks and questions about a vacation in Rwanda. After WWII and the horrendous genocide perpetrated on the Jewish people by the Nazis, the UN created a formal genocide policy, including a definition of the term and a requirement that all participating countries treat genocide as an international crime and take steps to stop it. Despite this policy, the world literally stood by and watched, as within a matter of weeks, up to one million people were exterminated. The world's indifference led Rwanda to a leader, Paul Kagame, who believes that Africa must look after Africa. Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the military organization that ended the genocide. He closed "refugee" camps where génocidaires continued to perpetrate their crimes, led his country through the reconciliation process, and leads it in his third term as president.

While the UN International Criminal Court set up a tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania to try the ringleaders of the genocide, Kagame and the government decided to use Gacaca courts. These courts correspond to traditional, village-based courts, where village elders and their communities gather for problem solving. Following the Gacaca process, the genocide suspects were taken to the villages where they allegedly committed their crimes to be confronted directly by their accusers. The trials were overseen by local people respected for their integrity and were designed for both accountability and healing. As expected, there was criticism of this process, but, with a country entirely decimated, prisons overflowing and the urgency to move the country forward, these Gacaca courts tried two million people as compared to the UN's trial of 62.

Rwanda has also made big strides towards gender equality — almost 64% of parliamentarians are now women. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution, requiring 30% of parliament to be women, which has enabled women in the country to make economic advances. A Ministry for Gender and Family Promotion, a gender monitoring office, a commitment to gender-based budgeting, and in recent years, a strong emphasis on fighting gender-based violence, have led to increased gender equity. Women now have the same rights to inherit land as men. Girls are equally as likely to attend school as boys, and there is a Girls Education Policy and Implementation Plan in place.

Everywhere we went we saw activity, from the largest cities to the smallest villages: women walking up the mountains, carrying babies on their backs and items on their heads; men and boys with bicycles loaded with sticks or plastic jugs of banana beer. The country is spotless. On the last Saturday morning of each month, everyone aged 18 to 65 participates in a clean-up day, called Umuganda (community work). Everyone must participate, even at the highest levels of government. Each community determines the needs to be addressed that day. Each month there is also a sports day when everyone runs or walks or bikes and ends up in the community center together. Critics from afar love to find fault, and Rwanda is no different. But I can tell you that I found it one of the most uplifting and hopeful experiences of my travels. The people were some of the most gracious, warm and enterprising I have ever met.

The sights and sounds of Rwanda are not to be missed. It’s a country I hope you will visit and support. It is a country that offers examples not only for Africa but for the world: lessons learned when the world closed its eyes to the genocide and the countries complicit in its perpetration; the swift process of justice employed by the country; conservation efforts in the mountains; community days; the burgeoning tourist trade and the feeling of hope that this country, with a majority population of women and children, emanates in everything it does. Rwanda is a country to visit for the genocide museum, the people, the mountains, the gorillas; a country to watch, as it has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa; a country to emulate when it comes to women and gender equality. The government seeks to transform Rwanda from a low-income, agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with a middle-income status by 2020. My money is on them!