Heather B. Hamilton
The challenge of reconstructing the physical and social structure of Rwanda
seems like an overwhelming task to most observers. The country is economically
ravaged and socially divided after four years of civil war, followed by the
1994 genocide of nearly a million people. Huge refugee flows of millions of
people and a continuing insurgency in the northwest have only increased the
difficulty of the task of reconstruction. The international humanitarian community
has been engaged in Rwanda, for better or for worse, from the first days after
the end of the genocide. Academic and journalistic analyses of the conflict
and reconstruction have been published and dissected. Yet somehow in the midst
of all of the humanitarian assistance and debate, the women of Rwanda generally
have been treated as just one of many demographic groups vying for attention.
It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that women are central to Rwandan
reconstruction, and should therefore be accorded more attention in the policy
and programs of international non-governmental organizations, bilateral and
intergovernmental aid agencies, and international financial institutions.
As noted by a Rwandan woman working with the United Nations Population Fund,
“You can’t make peace without 54% of the population” (R. Rwabuhihi, personal
interview, March 16, 1999).
The conflict literature thoroughly discusses the roles of women in conflict
and reconstruction. In particular, it has been noted that the expansion of
women’s roles in the public arena that frequently occurs during conflict is
often followed by a decrease in women’s opportunities and a retraction of women’s
space for public action in the post-conflict stages of reconstruction (Aretxaga,
1997; Enloe, 1993; Sharoni, 1995). However, the Rwandan case does not fit this
typical pattern. Today, Rwandan women are taking on new roles and responsibilities
out of sheer necessity. Despite numerous challenges, the public space for women’s
participation has actually expanded in the past five years. Fifty-seven percent
of the adult working population aged 20 to 44 is female, and women produce up
to 70% of the country’s agricultural output. In the social realm, the war and
genocide had a disproportionately strong impact on women, as rape and genocide
survivors, widows, heads of households, and caretakers of orphans.
After a brief description of Rwanda’s demographic changes and women’s role
in the economy, this paper investigates the legacy of the conflict for women,
as victims of and participants in the genocide, and their unique post-conflict
needs. The paper then discusses the structural, cultural, and legal challenges
faced by women in fulfilling their new roles and responsibilities. Women’s
participation in post-conflict reconstruction is then explored, with particular
attention devoted to the work of Rwandan women’s self-help groups and NGOs,
and the efforts of aid agencies to work with these groups. This section also
discusses recent political reforms that have increased the voice of women in
the public arena.
Finally, the research explores the role of women in peace-building and reconciliation.
While recognizing cultural constraints to “reconciliation” as often defined
by Western aid agencies and donors, and avoiding an essentialist view of women
as peacemakers, the paper proposes that women have a particularly important
role to play in reconstructing the social and moral tissue of Rwandan society.
The paper concludes with a recommendation that for national reconciliation and
reconstruction to succeed, third parties in Rwanda must include a strong gender
component recognizing women’s needs into all their programming, paying special
attention to the new roles of women in Rwanda’s society and economy.
Recent Demographic Changes
Shortly after the genocide, the Rwandan government publically estimated that
70% of its population was female (Women’s Commission, 1997, p. 6), a statistic
still quoted today by aid agencies and journalists. In 1996, this figure was
revised downwards to 53.7% in the Rwandan government’s Socio-Demographic Study
(République du Rwanda, 1998, p. 7), conducted after the return of over a million
refugees from Tanzania and Zaire. While the 1996 figure is not a huge increase
over the 1991 percentage (51.8%), the 1996 figure indicates the proportion of
females in the entire population of Rwanda and includes both children under
15 (47.5% of the population) and people over 65 (3.2%). Neither of these groups
is able to engage substantially in economic activities and in the reconstruction
of Rwanda. If we look at the adult population alone, from ages 15-64, the proportion
of women rises significantly, to 56.3% women. Excluding children ages 15-19,
the percentage of women rise to 57% in the 20-44 year age group, and to 58%
in the 45-64 year age group. In different terms, in the 25-29 year age group,
there are only 69 men per 100 women.
The number of women in relation to the whole population is elevated in Rwanda
because of the greater number of men killed during the genocide and wars, and
absence of male groups of ex-soldiers and genocidaires who have fled to Zaire.
Accordingly, women now shoulder a greater burden of economic activity and reconstruction
activities in Rwanda. Women’s burdens have been augmented by the fact that
many adult men are in the army, and 150,000 men are in jail awaiting trial for
genocide crimes, and are therefore not engaged in reconstruction and other economic
It is important to recall that Rwanda was one of the poorest countries in the
world even before the genocide. Its gross domestic product fell by 50% in 1994,
and it has still not attained pre-war levels of economic activity. Poverty
has increased dramatically; in 1993, 53% of households were under the poverty
line, but by 1997 the percentage had risen to 70% (The World Bank, 1998, p.
i). Post-conflict reconstruction in Rwanda is not only a matter of re-building
the former society and economy, but also re-launching the development project.
One of the often-cited causes of the conflict is Rwanda’s endemic structural
poverty, and the achievement of a sustainable, long-term peace will require
substantial progress toward equitable economic development. Because women
constitute the vast majority of the adult working population, they are central
to economic development and reconstruction. Furthermore, the important role
of women in the economy and in reconstruction is augmented by their key role
in agricultural production. Ninety-five percent of Rwanda is rural, agriculture
is by far the largest economic sector, and women produce up to 70% of the country’s
total agricultural output (Drumtra, 1997, p. 39; UNICEF, 1997, p. 106). Consequently,
women are the main agents of reconstruction in Rwanda today, and any consideration
of Rwanda’s future must take into account both the differential needs of women
and their contributions to economic and social reconstruction.
The Impact of the War and Genocide on Women
Women in Rwanda were affected differently by the war and genocide than were
men, and have different post-conflict problems and needs. As so often occurs
in conflict, women were targeted because of their gender, specifically because
they were women. One of the most widely distributed and immensely popular Hutu
propaganda tracts circulated before the genocide was the “Hutu Ten Commandments.”
Tutsi women were portrayed by the extremist Hutu media as temptresses to be
avoided, and the first three commandments reflect this characterization:
1) Each Hutu man must know that the Tutsi woman, no matter whom,
works in solidarity with her Tutsi ethnicity. In consequence, every Hutu
man is a traitor:
marries a Tutsi woman
makes a Tutsi woman his concubine
makes a Tutsi woman his secretary or protégé.
2) Every Hutu man must know that our Hutu girls are more dignified
and more conscientious in their roles as woman, wife, and mother. Aren’t
they pretty, good secretaries and more honest!
3) Hutu women, be vigilant and bring your husbands, brothers and
sons to reason! (Verdier, et. al., 1995, p. 259)
This document, which extremist community leaders throughout Rwanda regarded
as doctrine and read aloud at public meetings, (Gourevitch, 1998, p. 88) also
exhorted Hutus to exclude Tutsi from all public life, including business, government,
education, and the military. It instructed Hutus to “stop having pity
on Tutsis” and to take up the “Hutu ideology” against their “common
Hutu men were not the only perpetrators of genocidal violence. In 1995, Africa
Rights published a book called Not so Innocent: When Women Become Killers,
documenting the participation of women in Rwanda’s genocide. Women participated
in the genocide in countless ways, from the provision of moral support and public
exhortations to finish the genocide, to turning over Tutsi who were hiding to
the militias, to actively participating in the mass murder. They participated
sometimes willingly, sometimes under threat of death. In addition, some of
the insurgents in the northwest who are fighting to restore the genocidal regime
and its ideology are women, and the insurgents are often supported morally and
financially by civilian women. There were as of 1997 over 5,500 women being
held in prison (just over 5% of the total prison population), most of whom had
been accused of crimes of genocide, many with dependant infants (UNICEF, 1997,
p. 112). However, while it is important to recognize that not all women are
innocent, it is equally important to recall that not all Hutu are guilty. Countless
Hutu individuals undertook heroic efforts to save Tutsis or to oppose the genocide;
many paid for their efforts with their lives.
Nonetheless, the Hutu commandments were translated into a program of systematic
rape of Tutsi women and girls during the genocide. Many were abducted and kept
as sexual slaves, raped repeatedly by their captors over a period of weeks.
Others were raped and impregnated by the very men, often neighbours, who had
just murdered their entire families in front of them. Certain women were raped
and then macheted, thrown into massive pits full of dead relatives, presumed
dead by their aggressors.[i]
Systematic rape was used as a tool of genocide against Tutsi woman, against
her family, her community, and her honor. In many cases, the rape had its intended
effect: women were so humiliated and degraded by the acts that they preferred
to commit suicide rather than continue with life.
The full number of women and girls raped in Rwanda is unknown. Victims are
often reluctant to admit to having been raped in fear of social stigma and shame,
or because of the extreme mental, physical and emotional stresses they face
in a society which rejects rape victims (Africa Rights, 1995,
p. 749; Angelucci, 1997, p. 44; Women’s Commission, 1997, p. 8). Emotional
stress and shame is often compounded by feelings of guilt about having survived
by being raped (UNICEF, 1997. p. 106). Many of the women who were raped were
subsequently killed, and remain unaccounted for. Not surprisingly, given the
difficulties in collecting accurate dates, estimations of the total number raped
vary widely. The U.S. Committee for Refugees states that “thousands of
female survivors, including young girls, were raped during the genocide” (Drumtra,
1997, p. 39), and Africa Rights (1995b) also puts the number in the thousands.
However, the Director of the Clinic of Hope, a Rwandan NGO providing medical
services, psycho-social counseling, economic empowerment activities and shelter
to women, estimates that 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped and often mutilated
during the 1994 genocide (Balikungeri, 1999). A 1997 UNICEF report, Children
and Women of Rwanda, states that, “Witness, medical and victims’ accounts
confirm that women, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were subject to
sexual cruelty. Most women who were directly threatened with death were spared
only to be raped” (p. 105). Furthermore, not only Tutsi women were raped;
rape was common in the Hutu refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire, and many of
the female returnees from 1996-1997 share many of the same problems and traumas
as Tutsi rape victims.
Regardless of the total number of women raped, systematic rape has resulted
in a number of lasting problems for the raped women and for Rwandan society.
The Rwandan Population Office estimates the number of war pregnancies to be
between 2,000 and 5,000, and a study by the Ministry of the Family and Women’s
Promotion conducted after the war in just two cities found 716 cases of rape,
472 of which resulted in pregnancies, and of these, 282 were ended in abortion
(Angelucci, 1997, p. 44). Abortion is illegal in Rwanda, but many raped women
desired it nonetheless. A UNIFEM/African Women in Crisis (AFWIC) report states:
By January 1995, eight months after the genocide killings started in Rwanda,
at least four pregnant women were showing up daily at Kigali maternity hospital
requesting abortion, which is illegal in Rwanda. These women had been raped
during the war. Two had by then given birth, prematurely, and did not want
to see the babies. One of these women had been raped and impregnated by the
very man who had murdered her husband and four children (Hagengimana, p. 13).
Children of rape were often abandoned, and cases of infanticide and suicide
were also widely reported (Angelucci,1997, p. 44).
Raped women also face severe psycho-social trauma and health problems. In
addition to shame, ostracism, and survivor’s guilt, women must contend with
the fact that their rapists were often neighbours, who may still live nearby,
undenounced (UNICEF, 1997, p. 106). A UNIFEM/AFWIC study in two health centers
in Rwanda conducted in November 1994 found that women as a group — not just
rape survivors — had been subjected to severe physical and psychological atrocities
resulting in severe trauma. A subsequent psychological study of 100 of the
women revealed that 70% of them were suffering from “severe post-traumatic
stress disorders,” while the rest were suffering from reactive depression,
grief reaction and anxiety disorders (Kofi, p. 13). Women’s psychological trauma
is often compounded by the physical trauma of rape, including injuries to the
genitals and reproductive organs resulting from brutal and frequent rape, which
may have resulted in permanent disabilities or infertility. In addition, many
victims of rape were infected with the AIDS virus and have passed it on to their
However, sexual violence is not the only way in which women were adversely
affected by the war and genocide. Even women who were not raped have had to
deal with the consequences of the genocide and war. Rose Rwabuhihi, a professional
Rwandan woman working with the United Nations remarked, “When you have
to life with memories, it’s atrocious. Most women were confronted by the genocide
. . . rape, children, AIDS, loss of shelter, loss of family support networks.
Life is extremely hard.” She pointed out that often men can re-construct
their lives; they can re-marry, for example. Often, the women survivors cannot:
if they have been raped and/or sexually mutilated, they are not desirable in
marriage any more (personal interview, March 16, 1999). One of Rwanda’s most
pressing social problems today is the increased number of women-headed households.
Thirty-four percent of households are women-headed today, an increase of 50%
over 1991 (The World Bank, 1998, p. 6). Of these, the vast majority (60.8%)
are widows, mostly from the genocide and war (République du Rwanda, 1998, p.
29). Widows often find themselves alone, trying to provide not only for their
families, but for multiple war orphans as well. Some are elderly women who
have lost their whole families and are caring for the few young relatives that
remain. Other women must provide for their families in the absence of their
husbands who are in the army or who are in jail for crimes of genocide. Women
whose husbands are in jail must also spend large amounts of time preparing food
and taking it to their spouses, a time-consuming task that leaves little time
for other household and agricultural duties. A 1998 World Bank study on poverty
in Rwanda indicates that female-headed households are more likely to be poor
than their male-headed counterparts:
Whilst the 1993 poverty assessment noted no discernable difference in income
levels between male and female-headed households, wealth-ranking exercises
undertaken by the PPA (participatory poverty assessment) show that after the
genocide female-headed households are more likely to be poor than male. This
is primarily due to labor constraints: in all areas covered by the PPA, the
female-headed households in the “poor” category are those without
husband, adult children, or other family labor. Children in female-headed
households also have a higher probability of malnutrition, which is a close
proxy for income poverty, than children in male-headed households (p. 6).
Both widows and women with absent husbands find it difficult to find enough
time simply to cultivate enough food for their families and complete their domestic
and childcare tasks, thus diminishing the possibilities of the creation of surplus
for sale at market for cash. Not only does this lead to household malnutrition
and poverty, but also to a lower level of economic activity than would otherwise
Structural and Cultural Challenges Faced by Women
In addition to having been affected differently by the war than were men, women
face numerous challenges related to their traditional position and status within
Rwandan society. As in many other countries, women traditionally have restricted
access to participation in the economy and public life of the country. A woman’s
value in Rwandan society is related to her status as wife and mother, or in
other words, to her household and procreative functions. Women are expected
to adopt a reserved, submissive attitude (UNICEF, 1997, p. 103).
Consequently, traditional education for girls did not include formal schooling,
but instead preparation for her role as wife and mother. There was no incentive
to educate a girl because the economic gains from her labor went to another
family as soon as she married. As Sheikh Mussa Fazil Harelimana, Chief of the
Juridical Affairs Division at the Rwandan Ministry of Gender and the Promotion
of Women, remarked, “In Rwandan culture, a girl’s school is in the kitchen”
(personal interview, March 17, 1999). Adult women in Rwanda face difficulties
finding paid employment because they have been denied the chance to pursue education.
For the general population, illiteracy rates for women are higher than for men:
50.5% of women are illiterate, versus 43.6% of men. However, for the population
over thirty, the difference is much larger: 67.4% of women are illiterate compared
to only 43.5% of men (République du Rwanda, 1998, p. 22). The women and girls
under thirty have benefitted from cultural and legal changes that have enabled
more girls to go to school.
However, while institutional barriers to the education of girls have been legally
removed and there is near gender parity at the primary and secondary levels,
girls’ dropout rates are still higher than boys, in 1992 measuring 10.8% to
boys’ 9.5% at the primary level. The 1997 UNICEF report notes that, “This
disparity is often the result of survival strategies of poor families, which
[sic] withdraw their female children first if there is not enough money to pay
for the various costs associated with schooling” (p. 108). Because education
is not free in Rwanda, and entails substantial other costs such as school uniforms
and books, families are often faced with restrictions on the number of children
they send to school. The 1996 Socio-Demographic Study carried out by the government
found that, unsurprisingly for a developing country, 24% of children from ages
10-14 are economically active. The report pointed out, however, that the proportion
of girls in this group is higher than expected, and the majority work in the
agricultural sector (République du Rwanda, 1998, p.25). While post-genocide
statistics on dropout rates are as of yet unavailable, it is not unreasonable
to suspect that, in response to the pervasive economic crisis gripping the country,
families faced with educating either a boy child or a girl child are choosing
to educate the boys and engage the girls in subsistence agricultural work at
Women also face constraints to their participation in the economy and society
as a result of discriminatory customary law. Because the Rwandan civil code
makes no provision for regulating property in the context of marriage, women’s
property and inheritance rights are governed by customary law. Women have only
usufructuary rights over property, be it household goods or land, while the
ownership of these remains in the hands of her husband or father (Harelimana,
S.M.F., personal interview, March 17, 1999; UNICEF, 1997. p. 111). In addition,
women cannot inherit property or land, which frequently leaves them unable to
provide for themselves and their families after the death of a father or husband.
Women’s access to land and property is also particularly important in the context
of Rwanda’s post-conflict reconstruction. Many women are widowed or orphaned,
and because of customary law barriers, are unable to claim their father’s or
husband’s land and property. This problem is exacerbated by the huge population
displacements and wholesale grabbing of land plots and houses that followed
the flight of people from their homes. Women returning from a refugee camp
or internally-displaced camp, often without male family-members, are left without
legal channels through which to reclaim their family’s property.
Women’s economic activity is also circumscribed by their lack of knowledge
about recent changes in the law. A royal (pre-colonial) law denying women the
right to engage in any commerce without her husband’s permission was repealed
in 1992. However, Rwanda was in the midst of a civil war and multi-party reforms
at that time, and there was no educational campaign undertaken to inform people
of the change. Today, women in Kigali regularly engage in commerce, but in
rural areas, women often do not know that the law was modified and are therefore
unwilling to do so (Harelimana, S.M.F., personal interview, March 17, 1999).
It is clear from this experience that changes in customary or official
law must be accompanied by educational campaigns in order to be effective.
Women also face official legal discrimination in Rwanda. In the Civil Code
and the Family Code, the husband is identified as the legal head of household,
and in the case of disagreements over parental authority, the father’s will
prevails. In addition, a foreign woman married to a Rwandan man may take Rwandan
nationality, but not visa-versa. The Penal Code states that a woman found guilty
of adultery should be imprisoned for a year, while a man found guilty is imprisoned
for one to six months and/or will be fined 1000 Rwandan francs (about three
dollars at the time of writing) (Harelimana, S.M.F., personal interview, March
17, 1999; UNICEF, 1997. p. 111).
Women’s role in governance, particularly at the local levels, is still minimal
despite constitutional protection of their right to participate. As noted by
UNICEF’s 1997 report, “Female representation at a peripheral level is practically
non-existent” (p. 109).[ii] At the national level, the Ministry
charged with the promotion of women is not simply the ceremonial organ that
parallel institutions are in other countries, but it still suffers from a lack
of funds and skilled staff. The number of women in government is increasing,
and reforms are being undertaken (see below), but there are still barriers to
women’s participation in national politics.
While Rwandan women face enormous challenges in recovering from the war and
genocide and reconstructing their country, they also have certain advantages.
Two of the Rwandan women interviewed for this paper were quick to point out
that, particularly within the household sphere, women have a certain authority
to control the actions of male members of the household and to determine events
(Ruboneka, S., personal interview, March 18, 1999; Rwabuhihi, R., personal interview,
March 16, 1999). In addition, women now constitute the overwhelming majority
of the adult working population, and are taking on new roles and responsibilities
out of sheer necessity. Most importantly, there is a concerted effort among
women’s groups and in the government to address the needs of Rwandan women and
engage them in the reconstruction and reconciliation processes.
Women’s Participation in Post-Conflict Reconstruction
As the large majority of the working adult population, women are shouldering
most of the tasks of physical reconstruction. A widow’s association in the
commune of Save, near Butare, states that reconstruction activities in their
commune are almost exclusively carried out by women. (Ngendahayo. 1997). Much
of this work is carried out by women’s communal groups and associations.
Since independence, Rwandan women have organized themselves into socio-professional
associations, cooperative groups, and development associations (UNICEF, 1997,
p. 109). However, women’s associations have taken on new importance in the post-conflict
society, as they attempt to address both women’s specific post-conflict problems
and the lack of social services normally provided by the state.
At the local level, women are creating or re-constituting self-help groups,
or cooperatives, to assist survivors, widows or returned refugees, or simply
to meet the everyday needs of providing for their families. There are over
one hundred of these groups in each commune, and they may be informal or formally
registered with the government (p. 110). NGOs and donors have recognized the
potential benefits of these groups in reconstruction and development, and have
assisted these groups or helped to form new groups. One such development effort
is the Women in Transition (WIT) Program. WIT was established as a partnership
between the Rwandan Government Ministry of Family, Gender and Social Affairs
(MIGEFASO) and USAID in 1996 in response to the sharp increase in women heads
of households. During its first two years, the program identified genuine women’s
associations and provided assistance in the form of shelter development, agricultural
inputs, livestock or microcredit (Shanks, B., personal interview, March 18,
1999). Another major development project targeting women, the UN High Commissioner
for Refugees’ Rwandan Women’s Initiative, works with numerous women’s associations
as its implementing partners. According to UNICEF (1997), women’s groups have
become “authentic and operational relays for development projects at the
grassroots level” because they
favor direct and participatory management, facilitate the participation of
women in training and income-generating projects and enable access to inputs
supplies. They are also and above all solidarity groups, enabling women in
a difficult situation to organize into pressure groups that put women’s needs
more firmly on the agenda. Finally, they facilitate the integration of returnees,
by directly intervening in reinstallation projects . . . (p. 110)
Buddy Shanks of the USAid Women in Transition Project noted that the women
they have worked with went through a gradual improvement in demeanor as a result
of working in associations. He said, “At the beginning, they said, ‘Tell
us what our priorities are.’ On our last visit, they had spirit, initiative,
enthusiasm” (personal interview, March 18, 1999).
Women’s associations are also active at the national level, working
on meeting the special needs of women survivors and returnees, empowering women
politically and economically, and reconstructing Rwandan society. Thirty-five
women’s organizations who work in women’s rights, development or peace have
organized themselves into a collective called Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe (Pro-Women
All Together). The Pro-Femmes Triennial Action Plan (1998) states that the
organization works for “the structural transformation of Rwandan society
by putting in place the political, material, juridical, economic and moral conditions
favorable to the rehabilitation of social justice and equal opportunity, to
build a real, durable peace.” In addition to their programmatic
activities in peace and reconstruction, Pro-Femmes also provides its members
capacity-building support and assists them with communication, information and
Women’s participation at the local level is also being increased by the recent
creation of “Women Committees” at each level of government administration.
A joint initiative of the MIGEFASO and women’s organizations, these grassroots
structures consist of 10 women who are elected in women-only elections to represent
women’s concerns at each level of government.[iii] The lowest level of representation is that of
the cellule, where the committee is elected by individual women from a population
of 2000-5000 people. The committee members at the cellule level elect the committee
members at the next administrative level, the sector, and so on up to each of
the 12 prefectures in Rwanda.
Suzanne Ruboneka of Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe, who helped to organize the committees,
stressed the need for women-only fora for women to become involved in public
decision-making. She said:
In our culture, there are still barriers for women to express themselves
in public. Women still don’t dare express themselves publicly, especially
when there are men present. Consequently, there are no places for women to
think, to look for solutions, to play a real role. Many women are illiterate,
and their point of view is never considered. How can we motivate women, give
them the chance to get together to express themselves, without fear? (personal
interview, March 18, 1999)
At the time of writing, cellule-level elections had taken place throughout
Rwanda, and some areas had already had elections at the sector level. One additional
benefit of the creation of the Women Committees is that the education campaigns
carried out by the Ministry and women’s organizations got women engaged in the
political process at the most local levels before general cellule-level
elections in March 1999.
The Women Committees have already been targeted by the donor and NGO community
as conduits for development assistance. The government gave each committee
the responsibility for setting up, contributing to and managing Women Communal
Funds (WCF), still in the nascent stages of development. The WCF are intended
to help start economic activities at the commune and sector level while allowing
grassroots women to participate in funding decisions affecting their lives (WIT/MIGEFASO/USAID,
1999). This is accomplished in part through micro-credit activities, in which
the WCF provide small loans at minimal interest rates to women who might otherwise
not be able to secure credit. The USAID/MIGEFASO Women and Transition Program
has reoriented many of its activities to work with the Women Committees at the
commune level through the provision of funds for their activities and with training
and guidance to the WCF Women Committees.
Efforts to increase the representation of women are not only taking place at
local levels, but at the national level as well. In a significant government
reshuffling of Ministers in February 1999, the Ministry of Gender, Family and
Social Affairs (MIGEFASO) was split, and there are now two ministries: the
Ministry of Family and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Gender and the Promotion
of Women (MIGEPROFE). MIGEPROFE officials state that the split is a positive
development that will serve to strengthen their position in government and will
lead to the reinforcement of both ministries (Harelimana, S.M.F, personal interview,
March 17, 1999). The Ministry was charged by the government to develop projects
to reform all laws discriminating against women, and has started projects to
change many of the discriminatory laws. After analyzing discriminatory laws
and drafting suggested revisions, the Ministry works with parliamentarians to
introduce the draft laws and work for their passage. Of particular importance
to their efforts is the establishment in February 1998 of a strong Forum of
Parliamentary Women who assist the Ministry in their education programs for
parliamentarians. Of the 70 Members of Parliament, 12 are women, and the Vice-President
of the Parliament is also a woman (Mukasine, M.C., personal interview, March
The Ministry has been working for over a year on the introduction and passage
of a new law on women’s inheritance rights that would enable women to inherit
land and property. The Draft Law to Supplement Book 1 of the Civil Code and
to Institute Part 5 Regarding Matrimonial Regimes, Liberalities and Successions
is currently in committee, and could be voted on as early as June or October
of this year. However, there is currently a project to revise the entire legal
code concerning the land regime. This is a much broader, more sensitive and
more complicated issue, one that is central to efforts to achieve long-term
peace and reconciliation. There is some concern that certain members of the
parliament and the government may be reluctant to work on the succession law
because they want to wait until the entire issue of the land regime can settled.
In addition, even if the succession law is passed and women gain the right to
inherit property, women’s rights to land and property must also be assured in
the land reform bill.
The Ministry of Gender and the Promotion of Women also has projects to educate
people about the concept of gender and women’s rights, and programs that work
to defend women’s and children’s rights. They are preparing educational campaigns
about the proposed changes in inheritance and other discriminatory laws, and
are participating in efforts to educate the populace on the need to change these
laws at the current time.
Women’s representation has also been increased in other areas of national government.
While official representation at the Ministerial level is still feeble, with
only 2 of 23 ministries headed by women (both newly created: the Ministry of
Gender and the Promotion of Women, and the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement,
and Environmental Protection), it is significant that 7 Secretaries-General
of ministries are women. The Secretary-General of a ministry is tasked with
the more technical aspects of running the ministry, while the Minister has a
more public and political role; Secretary-General is a position of considerable
power and influence. There are now women Secretaries-General in the ministries
of gender, land, social affairs, agriculture, finance, foreign affairs and justice.
In addition, the former Minister of Family, Gender and Social Affairs, Alosie
Inyumba, has been appointed to head up the newly created national Committee
of Unity and Reconciliation, and will hold the same rank as a minister. In
short, there are a number of women in influential positions in Rwanda’s most
important ministries, which bodes well for a continuation of positive governmental
measures towards the promotion and protection of women.
Women, Peace-Building, and Reconciliation
Establishing a sustainable peace in Rwanda is not simply a matter of re-building
the physical infrastructure and economy, but also requires the reconstruction
of the social and moral tissue of the nation. Five years after the genocide,
Rwanda remains a deeply divided society. Divisions exist not only between Hutu
and Tutsi, but also between different groups within the society. For example,
old conflicts persist between moderate Hutu and extremist Hutu who still support
the genocidal ideology, and new conflicts have arisen between “old refugees”
(Tutsi who returned to Rwanda in 1994 after decades of exile) and “new
refugees” (Hutu who returned in 1996-97 from the camps in Tanzania and
Zaire). There is even tension between some genocide survivors who feel as if
they are being asked to forget and forgive too quickly, and some recent Tutsi
returnees who maintain that Rwanda should focus more on the future than the
past. Some divisions even transcend ethnic identity; for example, urban/rural
and intellectual/grassroots divisions arise in policy formulation and implementation
by in the government and in NGOs. It is important to recognize the multiple
divisions present in Rwandan society, and not simplify the matter to one of
Hutu versus Tutsi.
While most international organizations and NGOs list national reconciliation
as one of their goals, and even the government has established the National
Committee of Unity and Reconciliation, this terminology often falls flat with
many Rwandans, particularly with genocide survivors. In Rwandan culture, reconciliation
has a specific meaning that is not necessarily the meaning implied by outsiders
using the term. To most Rwandans, reconciliation is something that occurs between
two individuals, a process by which the wronged individual physically takes
the hand of the person who committed the wrongdoing, and, as an individual,
forgives her/him for her/his action (Rwabuhihi, R. personal interview, March
16, 1999; Ruboneka, S., personal interview, March 18, 1999). When speaking
of reconciliation, international organizations and NGOs sometimes give the impression
that they expect survivors of the genocide to directly forgive the individuals
who murdered their families and loved ones, even if this is not their intended
message. Genocide survivors speak of the need for justice before reconciliation,
for prosecution of the crimes of genocide that took the lives of nearly a million
people. They stress that forgiveness is only possible if the author of the
crime is willing to admit that there was a crime, whereas many of the perpetrators
of the genocide who are still at large deny the existence of the genocide and
their participation in it. Rose Rwabuhihi, a Rwandan woman working with the
UN, asked the question, “Reconcile whom? The author of the crime and the
victim?” She continued, stressing that this type of reconciliation was
impossible, and that the question that must instead be asked is, “Is there
a way such that we can live together?” (personal interview,
March 16, 1999). Suzanne Ruboneka of Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe had many of the
same reservations about reconciliation as conceived by the foreign aid donors
and NGOs, and proposed a different conceptualization of reconciliation for Rwandan
women. She said:
We have to ask ourselves how things arrived here. Each Rwandan
must ask herself this question. Each Rwandan must ask herself, “What
did I do to stop it?” Because this small group of Rwandans that killed
were our brothers, our husbands, our children. And as women, what did we
do, what was our role in the whole thing? Each person must take a position
for the future. What must I do so that tomorrow will be better, that there
will not be another genocide, that our children can inherit a country of peace?
Each person holds a responsibility to be reconciled with herself (personal
interview, March 18, 1999).
Simply finding a way to live together in peace is perhaps the key to national
reconciliation, and women have a special role to play in this process. As Rose
Rwabuhihi pointed out, women share common problems in the realms of health,
nutrition, water, caring for children, all of which are more difficult in the
economic and social crises that have followed the genocide. They also share
the lack of formal power within the system to influence decisions affecting
their lives. Rose said, “They share these problems; they could maybe look
for peace together,” recognizing that, “the crisis is killing me as
it is killing her” (personal interview, March 16, 1999).
Suzanne Ruboneka also believes that women’s common struggles give them a special
role in national efforts at peacebuilding. She remarked, “It was women
and children who were the victims of all these wars — widowhood, rape, pregnancy
. . . are we going to continue to be the victims of future wars? It is men
who make war. Women are saying, ‘Stop the war. We want peace’” (personal interview,
March 18, 1999).
However, it is important in the author’s view to avoid an essentialist view
of women’s roles in peacebuilding and reconstruction. That is to say, it is
not the purpose of this paper to propose that women are by their nature, or
essence, more peaceful than men and are therefore more natural peacemakers.
As mentioned above, some women were victims of the genocide while others participated
actively, even led in the killing. Women are not necessarily innocents or victims,
and should not be identified as peacemakers simply by nature of their gender.
However, in Rwanda, it is women who, often without the assistance of men, are
left to rebuild the society, and they do face many similar problems regardless
today, problems that transcend ethnicity and politics. By tackling these problems
together, women may be able to build bridges to the future.
This is the strategy used by Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe in its efforts to build
peace among Rwandan women. Suzanne noted that their strategy is to make women:
see the reality of things. We are all here, in the same country, we must
live here, all of us, and we must live in peace . . . We are all women, and
as women, that’s something that unites us, whether we are survivors or refugees
(old or new), professionals or grassroots women, intellectuals or illiterates.
We have the opportunity to work together, to tell the truth. We have realized
that we need to get past all these differences to find the real problems (personal
interview, March 18, 1999).
Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe’s Action Peace Campaign is designed to enable women
to recognize the need to live in peace, and give them the tools necessary to
live together at the local level. They are organizing “dialogue clubs”
in as many of the cellule-level Women Committees as possible, in which the elected
representatives bring together women from the community to discuss the conflict
on a regular basis. The first discussions in each club is about the causes
of the genocide, and discussions proceed from a document on this subject prepared
by a Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe member organization. Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe hopes
to have a dialogue club in every cellule-level Women Committee in Rwanda, which
could be a remarkable force for women’s peace and reconciliation efforts. Suzanne
commented that the creation of the Women Committees was very important to all
of their efforts to better women’s lives and to build peace: “The Minister
gave us the field, and we are going to plant seedlings and then we will harvest
the results” (personal interview, March 18, 1999).
While the field has been plowed and the seedlings planted, Rwanda will need
a great deal of care and attention to bring reconstruction and reconciliation
efforts to harvest. Eighty percent of the Rwandan government’s budget consists
of foreign aid donations; the role that international organizations, NGOs and
bilateral foreign aid play is immense. However, assistance that does not take
into consideration the special needs of Rwandan women and their contributions
to reconstruction runs the risk of ignoring the very people who are rebuilding
Rwanda, physically and morally. International aid donors and NGOs should include
a strong gender component in all of their programming, paying special attention
to the new roles that women are playing in Rwandan society and designing both
development projects and reconciliation programs accordingly. Likewise, the
Ministry of Gender and the Promotion of Women’s initiatives to reform discriminatory
laws and improve the status of women should continue to be supported, even prioritized,
by the government of Rwanda and the international community. Women’s position
in Rwandan society is rapidly changing in response to the new roles they must
adopt to survive. While social change is always slow, the post-conflict crisis
in Rwanda has ironically resulted in a situation not only of great challenges
but also of great opportunity for Rwandan women. If national efforts for reconstruction
and reconciliation are to succeed, women will need to be supported and encouraged
in their new roles as heads of households, as public representatives, as agents
of reconstruction, and as peacebuilders.
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Conference on Eliminating Violence Against Women, Nairobi, Kenya, March 1999.
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[i] For more information on gender-specific violence during the genocide,
see Africa Rights, 1995b, pp. 748-797; Angelucci, et al., 1997.
[ii] Articles 6 and 9 of the constitution guarantee equal
participation in political life to all citizens, without discrimination, whether
as electors or candidates for office (UNICEF, 1997, p. 109).
Rwanda has four levels of administrative units: the cellule, the sector,
the commune and the prefecture (smallest to largest). There are 8,987 cellules
in Rwanda, 1,531 administrative sectors, 154 communes, and 12 prefectures.
A cellule consists of approximately 1000 families, and prefectures range in
population from 184,000 residents to 800,900 residents (“Rwanda Mourns,” 1999).