New constitution gives a lift to Rwandan women


Rwandan women are taking power into their own hands, writes JODY CLARKEin Nyanza

The Rwandan president hasn’t reached the podium yet. But already, the 100,000 people gathered under the mid-afternoon sun in Nyanza to hear him speak have burst out in wild cheers.

Maybe it’s the MCs, who have had the crowd chanting the ruling RPF party national anthem for a good hour.

But the appearance of Sharon Tumusime, a disabled mother in a wheelchair, has done its job too.

“I decided to take advantage of RPF policies,” she tells the crowd, and get funding to set up her own secretarial business. She went to university in Uganda, got a degree in management and now owns a house worth 1.3m RFR(€1,600). “When I came back, I saw that Rwanda had transformed for women. There is no discrimination any more. And it is because of you, President Kagame.”

With that the sounds of ni-wowe ni-wowe (“it is you, it is you”) reach around the hillside, and the tall slender figure of President Paul Kagame, his hand in the air, acknowledges the crowd.

Over the past 16 years, the lives of Rwandan women have been transformed.

Much of this has been out of necessity. After the 1994 genocide, the country was left with a population that was 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male, according to some estimates.

This left the country in a sticky situation, as women did not have the right to inherit land or property. But it prompted women MPs, who held just one in five seats before the genocide to push for change. A bill was passed that gave equal inheritance rights to men and women, which led to the establishment of a 12-member constitutional review commission in 2000.

The previous constitution had been drawn up by academics, including Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian law professor. This one would be done for Rwandans and by Rwandans.

After being brought around village halls around the country, with input from women and women’s rights groups, the new constitution was passed in 2003. It provided for 30 per cent of seats in parliament to be given to women. In the general election the same year, 55 per cent of seats went to women, the highest proportion in the world.

“It’s really changed the decision-making process” says Agnes Mukabaranga, a senator in the the Rwandan parliament.

“Overnight, we raised issues that had never been put before parliament before. Providing access to clean water, making sure that facilities for pregnant women are conveniently located.

“Very recently we got taxes on gas reduced, which is very important for women as they are the people in the house who cook.”

But getting more women to serve as MPs isn’t a silver bullet to Rwanda’s problems. Rwanda’s parliament can have limited influence, given that power is concentrated in the hands of President Kagame and those who surround him.

But on the surface at least, real progress has been made in advancing the rights of women in the country.

Coming to the end of her speech, addressing the swaying crowd held back by wooden school benches, this is certainly the message that Sharon Tumusime wants to put across.

“It doesn’t matter how many resources a country has. There is no reason why women can’t push themselves out of poverty.”