From The Guardian
Judith Kanakuze pauses at the mention of her family. "God saved me," she says. "He did not save them." Fourteen years ago, 11,000 Tutsis were murdered in Kanakuze's home province of Kibuye, in the west of Rwanda, in the town's Roman Catholic church. Almost everyone in her extended family had fled to the chapel for sanctuary. The next day another 10,000 people were murdered in the town stadium in a pogrom led by Kibuye's governor.
Kanakuze does not want to say much more. The survivors of the genocide often speak of the pain of being "condemned to live". But she admits to an unexpected optimism as a member of the first parliament in the world to have a majority of female MPs. "This is a different time," she says. "We are transforming our society, and women are part of the solution."
In September, Rwanda's parliamentary election saw women win 45 of the 80 seats. Nearly half were elected in women-only seats, with the rest triumphing in open ballots.
The women MPs include former rebels and genocide survivors, war widows and peasant farmers, and although the election was a landmark, the women's success was not unexpected. Under the requirements of a new constitution, women already held a third of cabinet posts – including the foreign, education and information portfolios. The heads of the supreme court and the police are also women, as are a majority of the country's prison governors.
Before 1994, women held only around one in five parliamentary seats. The genocide changed everything. When the killing ended there were twice as many women as men in Rwanda, and while the gap has since narrowed, more than a third of households are still headed by women. Women also make up 55% of the workforce and own about 40% of businesses.
Aloisea Inyumba is a Tutsi former rebel fighter, who has been part of the Rwandan Patriotic Front-led (RPF) government since it overthrew the extremist Hutu regime in 1994 – serving first as minister for women and the family, before moving to the gender and social affairs brief. She is now a senator in the upper house of parliament, and says that women began to exert political muscle partly as a means of survival. When the killing ended, widows were sometimes left destitute because the existing law didn't permit women to inherit land or property.
That prompted Inyumba to press for change. "After the genocide there were property disputes," she says, "so we worked on a strong family bill. For the first time the women of this country were given rights to inherit. Traditionally, if a woman married a man, the property belonged to him. If your husband died, the property would go to the in-laws. This bill has become a legal protection for families. Women can now inherit, women can own property. A girl child and a boy child have equal entitlement to inheritance."
Another issue that women forced the government to address is rape. Sexual attacks were an integral part of the genocide, with local political leaders running what amounted to rape camps in some villages.
The international tribunal for Rwanda – which tried some of the organisers and perpetrators of the killings – defined rape as an act of genocide under international law, if part of a systematic move to wipe out an ethnic group. Yet when it came to Rwanda's own law to punish genocide, rape was almost relegated to a relatively minor offence. The draft genocide law split offences into four categories, with sentences of death or life imprisonment for murder. But rape was placed in the lowest category, alongside offences such as looting, with the draft law requiring only a light prison sentence or community service.
Groups such as the Widows of the Genocide and Ibuka, the survivors' association, were outraged. Many Tutsi women who had been raped had been infected with HIV, while others bore the children of their attackers. "The women were not happy with that draft law," says Inyumba, and so "we advocated for a change. We regarded the genocide law as very important in ensuring that the issue of sexual abuse was taken seriously. There was a proposal and an agreement that all the issues dealing with sexual violence would be included as category one. That was a great victory for women."
As the politicians moved beyond the immediate legacy of genocide, Kanakuze joined the committee that was drafting a constitution, as a "gender expert". She pressed for the 2003 constitution to require that at least 30% of seats in parliament and the cabinet be held by women. "Before we were listened to on social issues and gender equality and about violence against women," she says. "But now women will be a majority on the committees that were controlled by men – security, finance."
This transformation seems all the more unlikely given that it was engineered by what had been a male-dominated rebel group. But Inyumba says a focus on gender equality infused the RPF from the start because the party was focused on a broader rejection of discrimination of all kinds – beginning with the official persecution of Tutsis by successive Rwandan Hutu administrations. "The important generation is the next generation," she says hopefully. "My children are 20 and 18. They do not speak this language of ethnicity."
But many Rwandans still do and the government's critics say that discrimination is being only papered over. Public recognition of ethnicity is officially discouraged but that cannot hide the fact that a new Tutsi political elite – mostly made up of former exiles – has emerged dominant and privileged. Only 15% of the Rwandan population are Tutsi, and it has not gone unnoticed that a sizeable number of the new women MPs are of this ethnicity, leading some to question how well they can represent the mass of Hutu women who live in poverty.
MP Euthalie Nyirabega declines to discuss her ethnicity, but says that although she went on to become a sociology professor at the national university, her background is close to the grass roots poor. She served in local government and in a number of women's organisations before being elected to parliament. "I'm from a rural area," she says. "It's important that people in this building understand what women in rural areas are thinking. Not everyone here has that background."
Men have, on the whole, remained silent on the new laws. But Evarist Kalish MP, a member of the Liberal party and the chair of parliament's human rights committee, says that many men recognise that women may provide the best leadership.
"More than men, women are the victims of the war," says Kalish. "They have different priorities to those of men. They have more concern about issues related to violence in general, and gender-based violence in particular. Women have faced discrimination so they want to put a stop to discrimination. All of this will contribute to preventing another genocide."