Rwanda shows that it takes more than seats in Parliament to liberate women

Rwandan woman with fruits for sale | Getty Images

By Victoire Ingabire

To emancipate Rwandan women, we need cultural and economic shifts as well as parliamentary representation

One of Rwanda’s achievements over the past decades is that the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), has placed women in high-level decision-making roles in government. Some 61.3% of parliamentary seats and 55% of ministerial positions are held by women.

These impressive numbers are an indication of Rwanda’s commitment to gender equality, the empowerment of women and promoting the rights of women. The presence of so many women in public life also has a symbolic value, which has contributed towards increasing respect for women and giving them a more powerful voice in the family and community.

As a result, women in Rwanda have broken gender stereotypes and taken on work that used to be considered as only for men, such as carpentry, truck driving, masonry and so on. And for the first time in the country’s history, we have women pilots, international football referees, surgeons and CEOs.

But the majority of ordinary women I meet and speak to from across Rwanda say there is still a long way to go for women to achieve a level of influence in decision-making that can lead to the changes they want.

In Rwanda, 83.4% of women work in the informal sector and/or are in low-wage occupations – earning, on average, 60% of men’s incomes, according to the 2021 Global Gender Gap report. Only 28.6% of the total managerial roles in the country are filled by women, highlighting the divergence between the relatively high rate of overall participation in the work force and presence in leadership roles.

The 2021 National Gender Statistic Report also reveals that physical violence still affects 36.7% of women aged between 15 and 49 in Rwanda.

Some recent government decisions have, perhaps inadvertently, hurt women the most. For example, in efforts to make the capital, Kigali, tidier and to raise tax contributions, the city’s authorities have been targeting the thousands of street vendors – the majority of whom are women struggling to raise children alone.

Since 2016, authorities have urged the hawkers to form registered cooperatives or find formal work, both of which would be subject to tax. But the policy has failed, with the authorities mismanaging state funds or building markets that are far away from the vendors’ customers.

So the vendors remain, and are still subject to pursuit, arbitrary arrest, harassment and beatings by security agents, abuses that have been criticised by human rights organisations.

When the Rwandan government decided to close its borders with Burundi in 2015 and with Uganda in 2019 over disputes with their respective governments, followed by the imposition of strict measures to counter the spread of Covid-19 in 2020, trade activities were obstructed and employment was lost. Again, women were badly affected, with a 23% decrease in their numbers in the informal cross-border export trade between 2018 and 2021.

It is important to note that women have traditionally played a large role in informal cross-border trading. The sector represents a vital source of livelihood for the poor, in particular for low-income and low-skilled women, in border districts. It is an important activity for poverty eradication among women, which is especially important in light of the fact that female-headed households have higher poverty rates than male-headed households in Rwanda.

Prior to the Covid pandemic, women were already more likely to be unemployed, according to the World Bank. During the lockdown period Rwanda registered a 10% fall in the employment rate, with a larger decrease of 6.2% recorded among female workers against 3.8% among male workers.

A year later, the Bank noted that the status of women who remained employed had shifted considerably, as a larger proportion became “own account workers”, or self-employed workers without employees, a possible indicator that they were engaged in the informal economy. That there was not a similar shift in status among men reflects enduring gender differences in the structure of employment in Rwanda.

While the Rwandan government should be commended for increasing the number of women in government, the persisting gender inequalities and economic challenges facing the vast majority of women is a reminder that representation in Parliament is unlikely to be sufficient to empower women. This is especially true because only women from elite backgrounds have easy access to political participation.

The majority of women in Rwanda’s parliament are card-carrying members of the RPF or its coalition partners, a 2019 study found. And the women elected to seats specifically reserved for women were nominated, or at least vetted, by the RPF via the Forum of Political Organizations, a constitutionally mandated ‘consultative body’ that all political parties must join.

This means most women in Parliament owe allegiance to the RPF, rather than the constituencies that elected them. They adhere to and promote RPF ideology, which impacts what they support and advocate for in the policy-making process.

Though it is the prerogative of any parliamentarian to choose his or her political allegiance, Rwanda’s patriarchal social structure and cultural beliefs make women submissive rather than emancipated. To change this, there must be a movement of vibrant civil society organisations led by fresh minds, which works towards enabling women to be assertive so that once in public office roles they become genuine changemakers.

Rwanda’s political system must also become more inclusive and allow voices whose opinions differ from those of the ruling party to participate in the political life of the country. Not only would this bring new and different perspectives on the issues around how to emancipate women in Rwanda, but it would also promote the use of checks and balances within Parliament and strengthen the rule of law.

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