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Small Business (2:27) Excerpt from film "Ladies First" July 2004
Rebuilding Rwanda's economy meant that Rwandans, formerly accustomed to subsistence agriculture, had to learn to survive in the world of business. Many new small businesses were run by women.

Country: Rwanda
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  • You Go Girls

  • Rwanda
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    Guiding Questions
    1. What circumstances pushed Epiphanie Mukashyaka into new roles? In what ways were these new roles a matter of economic necessity? What obstacles has she confronted?

    Background Essay
    Rebuilding Rwanda's economy meant that Rwandan farmers, formerly accustomed to growing just enough food to feed their families, had to learn to produce crops for sale on the market. Women were often the business owners after the genocide, and Rwandan society had to adapt to their new roles in the economy.

    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.

    After the genocide, the economy was in shambles. 90 percent of the population works in agriculture. In order for the country to develop, the farmers would have to produce cash crops, like coffee. Women were used to growing enough food to feed their own families, but were not used to running businesses.

    How come these people don't have trays? Isn't it hard to come all the way over here?

    Having lost her husband, one child and an entire hillside of extended family, Epiphanie Mukashyaka found that the first thing she had to overcome was her own grief.

    I was depressed for a long time. I wasn't working at all. Everything is on your shoulders... and you find that everything is harder than it would've been. Since there's nobody to rely on, you find your own way to take care of your family.

    Determined to find a way to feed her seven children, Mukashyaka decided to rebuild the coffee business she and her husband had once shared.

    Ignoring tradition that said women couldn't run businesses, or even open a bank account, without their husban''s permission, Mukashyaka took the bold step of establishing her own business. It was harder than she anticipated.

    Women don't have the same support systems that men do. After work, men are used to going to bars and exchanging ideas with each other. But women don't go to bars. So if you're a woman alone, it's a lot harder.

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