By H.E. Mr. Oliver Jean Patrick Nduhungirehe, Ambassador off Rwanda to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, non-resident Ambassador to the Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
Gender equality has been one of the central pillars of our country’s reconstruction in the 28 years since the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. Before 1994, Rwanda was rife with social injustice, economic inequalities, and elitism. The ruling elite underinvested in crucial fields such as education, health and women empowerment. Most women were confined to being mothers and working in the field.
It was clear, therefore, for our new government, that to foster reconciliation, unity, and peace, and lay the foundations for a Rwanda for all Rwandans, women and girls needed to participate equally in all the spheres of the country life. It is within such context that, the government set out to build a political system that represented and benefitted every single Rwandan.
Equality, therefore, became a fundamental principle for our national reconstruction. Just after the genocide, many men had been killed and other had fled the country. A large part of our population was female – what form of equality and unity could we achieve without ensuring that women were at the forefront of this reconstruction?
President Kagame once said that “empowering women is not a favour, it’s a responsibility.”
This ethos has been embedded throughout our society since 1994. This is why we have consistently achieved high levels of female representation, because there is a widespread recognition that without getting the best out of all our citizens – including our women – we cannot achieve the high ambitions we have set for ourselves.
How has Rwanda benefitted from this commitment to Women’s representation?
I think there is a natural temptation to connect the high number of women in leadership positions to Rwanda’s lasting peace over the last 28 years, and to talk about how distinctly ‘female’ qualities play a part in this. Though there may be some truth in this, I think what should instead be emphasised is that this commitment has ensured that we have represented the whole of Rwanda in our leadership – that everyone’s voice is spoken for, and that equality is at the heart of our governance.
In an ideal world, we would not have to specifically promote women’s representation. Over half our population is female, and so it is only right that they are represented in kind in parliament. Of course, as with most countries all over the world, deliberate efforts must be made to overcome embedded patriarchal notions and ensure that this proportion is reflected in our leaders.
By making these efforts, we have ensured that at all levels, the leadership of our country is representative of the population. This is a truly democratic system of governing, which values equality above all else – this spirit, I believe, has guided our national reconstruction over the last 28 years.
Has this prioritisation of Women’s representation in politics translated to the rest of society?
Women’s leadership and representation at the highest level is essential to set an example for the rest of our institutions throughout the country – whether in the private or public sector. Real societal change, and equal opportunity and treatment for women at all levels is obviously at the very heart of all our policymaking. Of course, achieving widespread social change given embedded historic social practices – as with most other countries, a traditional patriarchal system was predominant in Rwanda for most of our history – represents a challenge.
Identifying, understanding, and addressing these challenges head-on is the best way of dealing with them. The policies that we have introduced in recent years – including the National Gender Policy recently revised to cover the remaining gap in women’s meaningful participation and representation in leadership and decision-making positions in public and private sector as well as CSOs at all levels. The same policy stresses also on the role of men and boys in promoting gender equality promotion and women’s empowerment. In addition, Girls’ Education Policy of 2008 (under revision) among other policies in place, have contributed to address girls’ issues throughout educational levels.
At the heart of our vision for development is a drive for relentless improvement. This is what we are seeking here – that every single Rwandan has identical opportunities and treatment in any area they choose, regardless of any pre-existing factor: be it gender, ethnicity, disability, or anything else.
What lessons can the rest of the world learn from Rwanda’s approach?
I think the most important thing is to really recognise the value of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment – it is not just a box-ticking exercise, it is a key to unlock the full potential of any society, organisation, or indeed country. It must, therefore, be an absolute priority, and should be hard-wired in all government policies.
Another thing I would say is that setting concrete legislative requirements and targets does make a real difference. In Rwanda, for instance, our constitution mandates that at least 30% of decisions making positions be occupied by women. In practice, we have far outperformed that baseline in a number of sectors; for instance the number currently stands at 63% in the parliament. . Yet these baselines, these legal requirements, are important mechanisms to ensure that when it comes to issues of equality, countries walk the walk, rather than just talking the talk.
Above all, however, it comes down to a commitment and to a shared vision for the future. Throughout our country, we have embedded the principles of gender equality – from the education system upwards – and it is a shared value that ensures our policies are successful.