November 22, 2016
By Elise Hall
If you were asked “Which country has the best political representation for women?” Your answer might be a progressive Scandinavian nation or perhaps the United States, but the small sub-Saharan nation of Rwanda would likely not cross your mind.
Not only is Rwanda the nation with the largest proportion of women serving in an elected body in the world; it is also the only nation with more women serving in elected office than men. So why is a nation mostly known for massive genocide also the country that has the best political representation for women? It actually turns out that genocide and women’s representation are highly connected.
In 1994 ethnic struggles between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda led to the death of over one million people. This left the nation with a skewed proportion of men and women, with women making up nearly seventy percent of the nation’s population. The genocide shifted gender roles and forced women to take on the role of head of household, community leader, and activist, in the absence of men in their communities and homes.
As the nation was rebuilding, Rwandan women had the unique opportunity to influence the constitution of the healing nation, and insert themselves into political positions. In an effort to stop further ethnic conflict, and unite the country, ethnic divisions were largely ignored in the new constitution which left room for gender, age, and ability to be recognized as important distinctions among the Rwandan population.
With this historical context in mind, the answer to why Rwanda is so representative can be answered with one word--quota. Quota in this sense refers to the practice of requiring a certain amount of women to be included in government offices, something more than thirty countries worldwide are doing. Rwanda set aside 30% of the seats in the lower elected body of their government to be reserved for women, and this happened largely as a result of the power vacuum created by the genocide.
The genocide also led to the creation of the Rwandan Ministry of gender, and women’s councils at every level of government. Despite the progress for women in terms of representation, there was no real change in the political power of women. A paradox was apparent in Rwanda--as representation of women increased, women’s policy making influence decreased. The inverse relationship between representation and policy making influence can be attributed to four things. The first is that interests groups after the genocide had the ability to influence policy as the nation was rebuilding, and women took full advantage of that opportunity but other interest groups working against women did the same. Second, there was a focus on elections and government positions rather than other means of political participation which may have led to a decrease in interests groups (such as women ability to shape policy. Interest groups accessed only one mechanism of policy making, the legislature, and in doing so they limited what they were able to accomplish. Third, appointing women to high level positions and reserving legislative seats meant that women were seen as capable candidates for politics. The top-down approach of having women as visible elected officials was effective at the high levels of government, but in lower levels of government women were unclear what their roles and policy objectives were. Lastly, the increase in women’s representation showed that groups that were once subordinate to other groups in society could be benefitted by quotas in countries with democratic governments. However, Rwanda was not entirely democratic.
As a result of international pressure, RPF, the controlling political party in post-genocide Rwanda, instituted gender quotas to create a guise of democracy due to pressure from the international community. Quotas demonstrated good governance, but were really just masking the fact that Rwanda was still very much an authoritarian government that was slowly working towards democracy, rather than a fully-fledged democratic nation.
Despite the fact that there have been obstacles to effective policy making and democratic governance in Rwanda, it is also undeniably true that the status of women has improved since the Rwandan Genocide. The crisis of women after the genocide led to an increased role of women at all levels of government, at first simply because of the lack of men, and later because women realized they were capable of holding such roles.
Grassroots movements among women were effective at getting policies through and getting women elected. Additionally, support from the international community empowered women to be leaders, and encouraged policy makers at the highest levels of Rwandan government to forge a place for women in politics though their constitution. Those Rwandan policies, including gender quotas, have created a nation where 56.3% of elected officials are women, 26.3% more than are required.
There is a prominent theory about the representation of women in government that says that there is a “pipeline of representation.” At one end of the pipeline is a pool of citizens comprised 50% of men and 50% of women, and at the other end is a pool of representatives that is 20% women and 80% men. These percentages indicate that there must be a leak somewhere in the pipeline where women go missing from the political arena. For many nations that pattern of the pipeline is true, but Rwanda is not one of those nations. Rwanda is an exception to this rule because the underlying assumption that the population is divided equally among men and women was not true in post-genocide Rwanda where the population was 70% women and 30% men. Women are so well represented in Rwanda because as a larger part of the population, they were able to more easily insert themselves into government. As a result, the pipeline is significantly less “leaky” and 56.3% of elected officials in Rwanda are female.
The positive effects of quotas in Rwanda are evidence that the composition of representation matters. More women participate in government, more resources exist for women, and more family and female centered policies are created in Rwanda, likely as a result of having more women in government. Clearly, nations that invest in women do better, Rwanda’s approach to gender may be one that the world needs to emulate if it wants to see progress in representation.