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The Paradox of a Feminist Narrative in Rwanda

Through a country's destructive tragedy emerged a utopia in which men and women are seemingly on the path to equality.

Rwanda was once paralysed by war yet now operates with a political system in which women are the dominant decision-makers. Today, females make up for 61.3% of Rwanda's Parliament – the highest number in the world.

The 1994 Genocide drastically altered the country's gender balance. Across a harrowing four-months, Rwanda witnessed an estimated 800,000 deaths, the majority of which were men. The government sought restoration and growth from a society in which women accounted for 70% of the population.

Built-up from mass devastation, with women at the centre of politics, economics and life, Rwanda became a model for gender equality and women's rights.

2003 saw the introduction of a mandatory 30% quota for female representation in the Rwandan parliament. Today that number is far exceeded.

Perhaps one of the most significant steps taken by President Kagame's administration was the 2006 passing of the 'Law on Prevention, Protection and Punishment of Any Gender-Based Violence'. Female deputies ensured that the legislation outlined a direct definition of rape and the punishment for perpetrators.

The law was a small glimmer of hope for thousands of women across Rwanda after the onslaught of sexual assault trauma experienced by many during the genocide.

Advancements in female representation have also enhanced a partial breakdown of gender stereotypes across and within Rwandan society.

Young girls are given role models in high positions of power, and mothers can fight for their daughters right to education without fear of resistance.

Thirty years ago, the role of women was solely to reproduce and manage the household. Today, 4 of 7 Supreme Court seats are held by such women.

Across the West, Scandinavia is often seen as a paradigm for gender ideals. In many ways, Scandinavia has paved the way in the promotion of equality. However, it is important to note that people in developed countries tend to ignore the success stories in countries beyond Europe and the US. Rwanda remains a prominent example of such. Their accomplishments in female representation and empowerment are often underreported and thus undercelebrated.

But is this a warped perception of a potentially harsh reality?

The success of female representation in the Rwandan Parliament must not go underappreciated. That fact is indisputable. Yet, many have questioned whether the perceived enhancement of women's rights is simply a smokescreen for the growing cracks in Rwandan democracy.

Taking office in 2000, President Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) became the embodiment of a progressive political change for Rwanda. He has often been accredited throughout the West with championing women's rights and gender parity.

Despite this, multiple reports imply the growing tyrannical nature of Kagame's incumbency.

Human Rights Watch (2018) reported that during the 2017 presidential election, both candidates running against President Kagame – Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party and Philippe Mpayimana of the independent – experienced coercion, threats and claims of harassment.

On top of this, the perceived change in stereotypes is perhaps not as vast as once assumed.

Whilst perception within and between female groups has altered (as previously mentioned), male dominance continues to run deep within society.

A piece conducted by Rania Abouzeid and Justine Uvuza shone a light on the continuation of clichés in women's personal lives across Rwanda.

They point out that whilst women may have gained success in the political sphere, the same does not run true in private. Uvuza recounts that husbands still expect their wives to "make sure his shoes are polished, his shirts are ironed, and his water is in the bathtub".

There is an unequivocal paradox surrounding Rwandan politics and society.

Whilst there has been a clear and successful fight for greater inclusion over the past two decades, evidence suggests that it has been used to create a distraction from the subtle demise of basic democratic principles.

Rwanda has epitomised female representation in parliament; our world should look to this and celebrate it. But, Rwanda has failed to show progression and equality in the face of conflict.

'Free and fair elections' remain a cornerstone of democracies around the world; without them, we risk disenfranchisement and political silence.

President Kagame's fight for gender equality is a remarkable feat. But we cannot use such a success to glorify Rwanda's progression in one area whilst ignoring its deterioration in another.

We must applaud the female voices being vocalised without ignoring those that are silenced.


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