Twenty years after the genocide, Rwandan women bring the country back to life

April 8, 2014
Bourbon Coffee in Washington, D.C., is a branch of the Rwandan company (Joann Weiner) Bourbon Coffee in Washington, D.C., is a branch of the Rwandan company (Joann Weiner)

Genocide isn’t an easy subject to talk about.

And it’s an especially difficult subject to talk about for someone who could have taken steps that might have helped bring genocide to an end, yet didn’t take enough of them.

That’s the situation former secretary of state Madeleine Albright faced when she was asked about how the United States responded to the genocide in Rwanda that began on April 7, 1994, and culminated with the deaths of 800,000 people in just 100 days.

The sheer horror that 8,000 killings a day reflects is why it was impressive when Albright said she was “glad you asked that” in response to my query about how she looked back on her actions as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the genocide.

“President Clinton has said repeatedly that failure to act in Rwanda was the biggest policy mistake of his presidency,” Albright said.

With a remarkably painful look on her face, Albright added “I agree. It’s my greatest regret from that time.”

“Unfortunately,” she explained, “With conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti, Rwanda wasn’t high on the agenda,” adding that there was very little information about Rwanda brought to the U.N. Security Council.

By coincidence, Albright was speaking to the day 20 years after the Rwanda genocide erupted, a day after an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarima was shot down while landing at the Kigali airport. Albright gave her remarks at the annual John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Lecture at Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

“Policy isn’t made in hindsight,” Albright said, adding that “we didn’t have the information then that we do now.” As she explained, hindsight gives a totally different perspective on what could or should have been done.

Fortunately for the Rwandan people, they didn’t allow the genocide to define their future.

Since seeing its national income fall by 50 percent during the genocide, Rwanda has become something of an economic miracle, not just in Africa, but throughout the world.

Much of this success is due to the Rwandan women.

In July 1994, Rwanda was a decimated country. The killings and the exodus from the killing fields had cut Rwanda’s population by about a third. So many men had been massacred or fled the country, women made up about 70 percent of the remaining population.

Thus, for Rwanda to restore its economy, it had to turn to the women to make it happen.

And, that’s what has happened.

Today, Rwanda’s women are instrumental in helping change the image of their country from one of hateful genocide to hopeful success.

These successes occur in many dimensions.

In politics, it’s reflected in the fact that in 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world where women held a majority in parliament. Women now hold nearly two-thirds of the seats, compared with just 22 percent on average around the world. Rwanda’s constitution requires that women hold at least 30 percent of senior government positions. The 10 women in President Paul Kagame’s cabinet account for 35 percent of the total.

The fact that women made up nearly 70 percent of Rwanda’s post-genocide population meant that the country had to change its laws to reflect the increasing importance of women to Rwanda’s economy. Rwanda now allows women to inherit property, share their family’s assets and have access to credit. Rwanda has created a Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion to keep track of how the country is doing in promoting women and achieving gender equality.

In economics, it’s reflected in the fact that women have become Rwanda’s most potent economic force, as reported by The Washington Post in July 2008. Women have proved especially adept in managing the farms that had been run by their “slaughtered husbands, fathers and brothers.” Rwanda may be “the world’s leading example” of how empowering women can transform post-conflict economies.

Much of Rwanda’s economic growth is due to its coffee exports, which total about $100 million a year, and are Rwanda’s second largest export commodity. Since the genocide, coffee plantations have increasingly been run by women, who have turned to exporting higher-quality, specialty coffee beans rather than the traditional low-quality beans grown by men. Rwandan coffee can now be found around the world, including at the Rwanda company Bourbon Coffee in D.C.’s West End neighborhood.

In technology, Rwanda has created a “Smart Rwanda” program that uses information and communication technologies to address development issues. “Smart Girls” is one of the 10 pillars of this program.

Finally, in education, Rwanda has many institutions that are focusing on giving girls a good education. One of these, the Akiliah Institute for Women, created a campaign titled “#IAmRwanda” where young girls highlight their ambitions to become Rwanda’s future leaders. For example, one photo shows a girl holding up a sign saying “Proud to be from Africa’s best investment hub,” while another girl proudly grips a sign saying “I am not defined by my past. I am an optimist.”

These stories show that although talking about Rwanda’s genocide isn’t easy, talking about Rwanda’s amazing post-genocide recovery is.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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