Women Run the Show In a Recovering Rwanda

Rwanda's parliament is the world's first where women hold a majority -- 56 percent, including the speaker's chair.
Rwanda's parliament is the world's first where women hold a majority -- 56 percent, including the speaker's chair. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 27, 2008

KIGALI, Rwanda -- On a continent that has been dominated by the rule of men, this tiny East African nation is trying something new.

Here, women are not only driving the economy -- working on construction sites, in factories and as truck and taxi drivers -- they are also filling the ranks of government.

Women hold a third of all cabinet positions, including foreign minister, education minister, Supreme Court chief and police commissioner general. And Rwanda's parliament last month became the first in the world where women claim the majority -- 56 percent, including the speaker's chair.

One result is that Rwanda has banished archaic patriarchal laws that are still enforced in many African societies, such as those that prevent women from inheriting land. The legislature has passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, while a committee is now combing through the legal code to purge it of discriminatory laws.

One lawmaker said the committee has compiled "a stack" of laws to modify or toss out altogether -- including one that requires a woman to get her husband's signature on a bank loan.

"The fact that we are so many has made it possible for men to listen to our views," said lawmaker Espérance Mwiza. "Now that we're a majority, we can do even more."

The unusually high percentage of women in Rwandan government is in part a reflection of popular will in a country of 10 million that is 55 percent female.

But it also reflects the heavy hand of one man, President Paul Kagame, whose photo hangs on the walls of houses, restaurants and shops. It also hovered over the swiveling leather chair of parliament speaker Rose Mukantabana as she opened a session late last week.

Since the 1994 genocide, in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days of highly organized violence that included the systematic rape of Tutsi women, Kagame, a Tutsi, has enforced a kind of zealous social engineering.

With a population that was about 70 percent female after the genocide, Kagame's new government adopted ambitious policies to help women economically and politically, including a new constitution in 2003 requiring that at least 30 percent of all parliamentary and cabinet seats go to women. The remaining 26 percent of the women in parliament were indirectly elected.

"This was a broken society after the genocide," said Aloisea Inyumba, Kagame's former gender and social affairs minister, who was also a prominent official in his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front when it was still a rebel group fighting the country's genocidal government. "We made a decision that if Rwanda is going to survive, we have to have a change of heart as a society. Equality and reconciliation are the only options."

While many African legislatures have adopted quotas reserving seats for female lawmakers, none has done so as ambitiously as Rwanda. The country's overall attitude toward gender puts it at odds with its neighbors.

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