In what countries are women and men on the most equal footing?
That’s a question that the World Economic Forum considers in its annual Global Gender Gap Report. Countries are ranked for the degree of women’s participation in the economy, their educational achievements, their health and their political involvement.
Iceland is number one, followed by Norway, Finland, Rwanda and Sweden. Yes, Rwanda, this year as in past years, is the only African country in the top ten. The U.S., by contrast, comes in at number 49.
Why does Rwanda do so well in these rankings? And how does the issue of gender equality play out in daily life.
The answer: When it comes to the roles of men and women, Rwanda is a complicated place.
If you want to understand why, a good place to start is with the story of Mireille Umutoni.
In high school, Mireille aspired to be a club president rather than just secretary. And why not? After all, she lives in a country where women seem to face no barriers, no discrimination.
In the parliament, for example, women hold more than half the seats. No country has a better record than that.
There’s just one problem: Even though Rwanda is arguably one of the most pro-woman countries in the world, feminism is not seen as a good thing. In fact, it’s something of a dirty word.
In high school, Mireille found that teachers and students took for granted that the head of a club should be a boy. When she would stand up in front of her class and ask, “Why can’t the head be a girl?” they would tell her, “That’s for Americans. You’re trying to be an American.”
Being “American” was shorthand for being too aggressive, too liberated, too selfish. The message was clear: You’re doing this for yourself, not for the good of your country. “They’d say, ‘You don’t belong in Rwanda,’ ” Mireille recalls. ” ‘You don’t even belong in Africa!’ ”
And when she did finally become head of a club — the debating club in her all-women’s college — she faced another struggle: Could she and her team members succeed in the male-dominated world of collegiate debate?
Before considering Mireille’s situation, we need to look at the Rwanda of 1994.
How the genocide changed gender roles
Following 100 days of slaughter that year, Rwandan society was left in chaos. The death toll was between 800,000 and 1 million. Many suspected perpetrators were arrested or fled the country. Records show that immediately following the genocide, Rwanda’s population of 5.5 million to 6 million was 60 to 70 percent female. Most of these women had never been educated or raised with the expectations of a career. In pre-genocide Rwanda, it was almost unheard of for women to own land or take a job outside the home.
The genocide changed all that. The war led to Rwanda’s “Rosie the Riveter” moment: It opened the workplace to Rwandan women just as World War II had opened it to American women.
In America, most WWII opportunities were short-lived. Millions of men came home after the war to claim their former jobs while women returned to domestic roles or jobs like nurse, teacher or secretary.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that a new generation took up the call for equal opportunity.
In Rwanda, that’s not what happened.
The call for equality was led not by thousands of women but by one man — President Paul Kagame, who has led the country since his army stopped the genocide. Kagame decided that Rwanda was so demolished, so broken, it simply could not rebuild with men’s labor alone. So the country’s new constitution, passed in 2003, decreed that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. The government also pledged that girls’ education would be encouraged. That women would be appointed to leadership roles, like government ministers and police chiefs. Kagame vowed to not merely play catch-up to the West but leapfrog ahead of it.
The country embraced Kagame’s policies and even went beyond his mandatory minimum. In the 2003 election, 48 percent of parliamentary seats went to women. In the next election — 64 percent. Today Rwandan politics is cited as a model of gender inclusiveness.
This change from the top down was possible partly because of the nature of Rwanda’s leadership. Kagame had a broad popular mandate for sweeping change — he had led Rwanda’s army to stop the genocide. He’s a strongman military ruler who allows little dissent or free speech. His word — and his vision — are often the country’s command.
But even though the change was dramatic and swift, how deep was its impact? Can a country truly transform its core culture from the outside in?
If the example of the American women’s movement is any indication, it was only after decades of women comparing experiences, envisioning what a different life might look like and then launching a movement, that change could occur. And never without struggle.
So what happens when a country skips the social upheaval and goes straight to the pro-women policies? When you take an aggressive shortcut through history, what do you leave behind?
When empowerment ends at the front door
Justine Uvuza wondered that, and decided to find out. A Rwandan herself who had grown up in a refugee camp in Uganda and then moved back to Rwanda in 1994, after the genocide, she worked for a while for the Kagame government promoting Rwanda’s pro-women policies. She was curious how much progress had been made. So when she was getting her Ph.D. at Newcastle University, she returned to Rwanda to interview female politicians about their lives — not just their public positions but their private lives, with their husbands and children. She found with rare exception that no matter how powerful these women were in public, that power didn’t extend into their own homes.
“One told me how her husband expected her to make sure that his shoes were polished, the water was put in the bathroom for him, his clothes were ironed,” Justine says. And this husband wanted not only his shoes laid out in the morning, but his socks placed on top of the shoes. And he wanted it done by his wife, the parliamentarian.
Justine heard countless stories like this — women were still expected to perform even ceremonial domestic duties. It was rarely an option to outsource such tasks to a maid or get your husband to shoulder more work at home. Some women feared violence from their husbands if they didn’t comply with these expectations, and one said that she had felt so trapped, she had contemplated suicide.
Justine says that for some of these women, the very real strides that they were making outside the home could feel less like liberation and more like a duty to be fulfilled. Being a “good Rwandan,” as she termed it in her research, meant both being patriotic — serving her country through her public work and career — but also being docile and serving her husband. As a result, Justine said, a female politician could stand up in parliament, advocating for issues like stronger penalties for sexual violence and subsidized maxi-pads for the poor, but find herself scared to speak out about the oppression in her own home.
And so Justine would end each interview asking these female legislators what seemed to her to be an obvious question: Would they support a Rwandan women’s movement? A movement to change not just the public roles for women but to re-evaluate gender relations on all levels? Would these powerful Rwandan women be willing to stand under the banner of feminism?
Almost all of the women said no. Feminism? “That’s not Rwandan,” they told her. “That’s for Westerners.”
Justine was not shocked. In fact, she had held the same views earlier in her life. She says that because of the way that gender equality came so rapidly to Rwanda, from the outside in, with no psychological buildup or women’s lib movement, it was harder for these politicians to talk about equality without appearing disloyal, not just to their spouses but to their country.
She wishes a debate over the limits of equality could take place in Rwanda