Woman walking

Rwanda Represents

KIGALI, Rwanda— A beautiful, dusty country rests in East Africa, and here, women are said to hold more power than men. “We made a decision that if Rwanda is going to survive, we have to have a change of heart as a society. Equality and reconciliation are the only options”, says Aloisea Inyumba, the Rwandan president’s former gender and social affairs minister.

I recently returned from Rwanda and witnessed the gender equality. Rwanda suffered the horrific destruction of genocide, yet has made amazing strides in the end of discrimination of women. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women was ratified by Rwanda in 1981, and the results are seen and appreciated today.

Those striving for human rights have seen amazing success for women, but the fight continues for a country where all, no matter gender, age, sexual preference, or income level, are recognized as humans, deserving of the same rights.

After the 1994 genocide, women made up seventy percent of the population (Reuters.com). Initiatives to empower the majority of the country were taken up, as women now had to take on some unfamiliar roles to ensure survival. Witnessing a woman farming or standing watch as a security official in the center of Kigali is not regarded as a spectacle.

I only saw a single woman motorcycle driver daring to take on the roads that can cause some extreme adrenaline rushes, but she was highly respected in the community. The international target for women’s representation in governments is thirty percent. Rwanda exceeds that goal. A quota system does exist. Many question quota systems for the legitimacy of the results; this system forces the result of the inclusion of women.

Will women actually be listened to? Rwanda demonstrates a yes; women hold power. In the first legislative elections since 1994, 39 of the 80 seats in the lower house of the Parliament went to women (www.ipu.org). The quota was surpassed. And the percentage of women representatives continued to increase after 1994. The Rwandan people desire entrusting decisions to a government significantly represented by woman,

In 2000, at the UN Millennium Summit in New York, world leaders “pledged to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger, and disease and the stimulate development that is truly sustainable” (www.un.org). Ending the discrimination of women does result in an improved world.

The organization Women for Women International works towards this necessary goal. A visit to their Kigali location was stunning. The organization was holding a graduation that day. We were ushered into cleared seats in the front row. The Rwandan people are amazingly hospitable, with some of the warmest smiles I have ever seen. Women who had been chosen from villages, the poorest of the poor, were graduating after learning craft and marketing skills. Women for Women International figured out a sustainable approach to improving lives.

These women can now return to their homes with skills for starting a business that will acquire funds to send their kids to school. Rwanda has grown into an amazing place for women, because of men and women, but many women remain unaware of their equal standing. I applaud this program as one that educates women on their possibilities, and Rwanda for offering the possibilities. Equality between all still suffers at a pitiful level, and that we must work on.

Thirteen of us, representing China, France, and America worked with Rwandan counterparts, and this is our definition of human rights: inherent, inalienable, and indivisible, this includes the right to protecting basic needs and preserve human values and dignity. If you are asked to define human rights, how do you answer? The meaning of human rights was hard to agree on, so imagine the difficulty of the actual fight for attaining the realization of human rights.

“Homosexuals are humans and citizens and the law should protect them” (Rwandan Civil Society Position Paper). I am ashamed that this has to be pointed out to people. Deciding you can revoke one’s status, as a human, based on sexual preference is heinous. CEDAW, powerful women, and men have inspired amazing changes, but work still needs to take place. I volunteered with an NGO called Health Development Initiative (HDI).

The situation in Rwanda for the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transvestite, Intersexual) community is poor. This community faces immense discrimination everywhere, but HDI is working for these people in Rwanda. I, along with two other participants, drafted an outline for a training program to increase acceptance of the LGBTI community in the larger community. This training program is two-days long and will be given to students chosen from the clubs in secondary schools that already work to reduce AIDS stigma.

Difficulty presented itself, especially considering we are Westerners. Many feel that homosexuality was “brought from the West”. The fight is worth it. HDI managed to remove Article 217 from  the Rwandan Parliament’s consideration. Article 217 aimed to criminalize homosexuality, and anyone who associated with anyone who partook in homosexual acts. We can now rest easy for a bit of time concerning the governmental level, but discrimination still exists.

The ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women motivated the beginnings of a movement of equality, so let us hope the removal of Article 217 can do the same.

Rwanda holds a past that can horrify, which makes the beauty you see today even more brilliant. The 1994 genocide claimed 800,000 to 3 million lives. I have heard many estimates. The memorials offer a physical bearing that is gruesome: the tattered, blood spattered clothes and slashed skulls of victims will haunt you, but ensure “Never Again”. Rwanda suffered a horrendous loss of life and respect for human rights.

Yet, today, I see an awe-inspiring forgiveness in the reconciliation process, and a profound appreciation for humanity. Women and men are working together, equally, for a country, where all people, no matter gender, age, sexual preference, or income level, are recognized as humans deserving of the same rights. The Rwandan people know the utter desecration of human life. More significantly, the Rwandan people know how to regain hope, and fight for humanity.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi spoke wisdom that will ring true until the end of time. I left Rwanda with sadness for the happenings and consequences of the genocide, but the inspiration outweighed any melancholy. The people I met in Rwanda lost parents, brothers, sisters, and any shred of a life they once knew. However, the Rwandans understand equality must triumph, allowing remarkable recovery. Work is waiting to be done in Rwanda, as is in the United States. Write your Senators about the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Act for a cause you believe in. The results can be stunning.