Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Representation of Women in Rwanda

As of September 2013, “women [hold] an unprecedented 64 percent of seats in Rwanda’s parliament, more than any other country in the world” [1], a status that is still valid to the present day. This figure is shocking when considering that globally, women comprise only 21.9 percent of parliamentary seats [2]. It is even more astounding when taking into account the civil war and genocide that ravaged Rwanda in the early 1990s.

Photo: Parliament of Rwanda

The Rwandan civil war began as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked the government in 1990, hoping to liberate the country from President Habyarimana. When Habyarimana was killed in 1994, the Hutus and the Tutsis (rival ethnic groups residing in Rwanda) plunged into a genocide, while the RPF simultaneously resumed the civil war with the government army. Eventually the RPF took control of the country and instituted a transitional government, although the terror did not end. By 1998, the RPF began to ‘democratize’ by establishing the Ministry of Gender and Women in Development and grassroots women’s councils, in order to educate women about political participation and promote women’s issues. However, few women understood the purpose of such councils [3]. By 2000, the RPF established quotas that require women to occupy one-third of the seats in decision-making bodies in an effort “to practice positive discrimination” in a new Rwanda [4].

Clearly, at first glance, the quotas have been a success; Rwandan women representatives have exceeded occupying one-third of parliamentary seats. However, scholars seem unsure that the intentions behind the quotas are genuine. Many, such as Jennie E. Burnet, believe that the RPF established the quotas in order to “quell protest from the diplomatic and international aid communities,” and to mask its “increasingly authoritarian governance” [3]. As Elizabeth Powley notes, it is ironic that the only country that has more women than men in its parliament is “less than democratic” and is still operating under a single-party regime [5].

While there has been a significant increase in women’s representation in Rwanda, this has had little effect on policy outcomes [7]. Though there are a significant number of educated, well-off women in parliament, the majority of Rwandan women are poor, uneducated, and experience gender-based violence [6]. So while Rwanda is excelling in representing its women in a descriptive sense, it remains unclear to what degree Rwandan women representatives accurately represent the interests of the female population, since quotas cannot guarantee that this will be the case. This is of significant concern, as Rwanda shifted demographically after the genocide [3]. There are now more women than men in the total population, and many women have had to take on the responsibilities of being the head of the household. These women need to be accurately represented for their circumstances to improve (of course, it is entirely possible for women to be accurately represented by men, but with so many women in parliament, it is hoped that many of the women representatives will be vying for women’s concerns).

While the motivation behind the quotas may not be sincere and how well the female population is actually represented is unclear, Rwandan women’s level of representation can still have a positive impact for shifting gender norms and improving women’s lives as the country continues on the path of healing and progression.

Washington Post/Getty Images

[1] Gogineni, Roopa. 2013. “Rwandan Parliament’s Female Majority Focuses on Equality.” Voice of America, September 26. http://www.voanews.com/content/rwandan-parliament-female-majority-targets-equality/1757899.html.

[2] Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2014. “Women in National Parliaments.” Last modified June 1, 2014. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm.

[3] Burnet, Jennie E. 2008. “Gender Balance and the Meanings of Women in Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda.” African Affairs 107, no. 428 (July): 361-386. http://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/content/107/428/361.full.

[4] United Nations. 2007. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Rwanda. 35-36. http://www.iwraw-ap.org/resources/pdf/43_official_documents/rwandaRWA6.pdf.

[5] Powley, Elizabeth. 2005. “Women in Parliament: Beyond the Numbers.” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 154-163. http://www.idea.int/publications/wip2/.

[6] Wallace, Claire, Christian Haerpfer, and Pamela Abbot. 2008/2009. “Women in Rwandan Politics and Society.” International Journal of Sociology 38, no. 4 (Winter): 111-125. http://www.jstor.org.erl.lib.byu.edu/stable/pdfplus/20628350.pdf?acceptTC=true&jpdConfirm=true.

[7] Devlin, Claire, and Robert Elgie. 2008. “The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda.” Parliamentary Affairs 61, no. 21 (April): 237-254. http://search.proquest.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/socialservices/docview/61422603/AAAB52270D904921PQ/1?accountid=4488.

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