- How did the constitution of 2003 mandate a new role for women in government? Has this mandate been met?
- How might the number of women and role(s) of women in the Rwandan Parliament work to undermine stereotypes?
In the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, women have become involved in the highest levels of government. According to the new Rwandan constitution, ratified in 2003, 30 percent of the seats in parliament are to be reserved only for female candidates. Because of this, Rwanda is a world leader in representation by women in the national legislature.
The history of Rwanda is a complex one, steeped in a legacy of shifting colonial powers and ethnic conflict. First colonized by Germany in the 1890s, Rwanda subsequently fell under Belgian rule in the aftermath of World War I. The European colonists helped to widen tribal resentments between two ethnic groups living in the area, the Hutus and Tutsis. In the early days of colonization, German and then Belgian authorities gave preferential privileges to Tutsis, who were in the minority in the population. But when Rwanda began to demand independence from Belgium in the late 1950s, the colonists shifted allegiance and backed the previously sublimated Hutus. Tutsi loyalists attempted to stop this shift by killing key Hutu leaders. The payback was swift and brutal, and the Hutus launched the first of several pogroms against Tutsi people. In the years that followed, waves of Tutsi refugees left the country. By 1990 there were approximately 600,000 Rwandans living in exile.
In April 1994, Rwanda's then-powerful Hutu carried out a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi people. The aim was to stop invading Rwandan Tutsi revolutionaries and to remove their local support by liquidating their power base. The Hutu-led Mouvement Révolutionnaire Nationale pour le Développement (MRND — National Revolutionary Movement for Development) and its military carried out an attempt at genocide. In response, Tutsi revolutionaries took control of the country in July, stemming the violence. But in terms of genocide, most observers would agree that the Hutus were frighteningly successful — killing more than 800,000 people in a short three-month period.
Ten years after this horrific atrocity, the country had much healing to do - but had also become a model of feminist opportunity. With so many male Rwandans killed off by the 1994 genocide, nearly seventy percent of the remaining population was female. Recent developments in the government and legislature to place women in positions of power upturned a long history of female disempowerment and have made Rwanda one of the most progressive nations in the world in terms of gender equity. Women now participate at every level of government and occupy almost half the seats in the national parliament.
The sweeping changes on the ground for women throughout Rwanda are being echoed here in the capital, Kigali, at the highest levels of government.
Women were only granted the right to vote and to run for office in 1961, and even then it was rare to find women in political positions. But Rwanda's new constitution, ratified in 2003, ushered in a new era.
PRESIDENT OF PARLIAMENT:
Today we're starting the second trimester of Parliament in the year 2004.
It decreed that 30 percent of the seats in parliament are to be reserved only for female candidates. But women can also compete with men for the remaining seats. In the first national elections, held in September 2003, women won 39 of the 80 seats, just shy of 50 percent. Today Rwanda leads the world in representation by women in a national legislature.