Why Rwanda is ahead of India and others

N Madhavan | Updated on: Jul 21, 2022
Reservations for women in legislatures government bodies are vital for their empowerment

Reservations for women in legislatures government bodies are vital for their empowerment | Photo Credit: DrAfter123

The poor Central African nation used a tragedy to become the world’s most women-friendly country 

Rwanda is not a rich or a first world country by any stretch of imagination. Located in Central Africa, this landlocked nation of 12.6 million, is poor and bereft of any natural resources. Almost 90 per cent of its people survive on subsistence farming with more than a third of them living below the poverty line. Its economy at $12 billion pales in significance compared to India’s $3.5 trillion.

The African nation ranks at least 25 notches below when it comes to human development index with a per capita income that is just 30 per cent of India’s.

But if there is one parameter in which Rwanda beats not just India but even developed countries such as the US, the UK and other European nations, it is gender parity. It has been ranked very high consistently in the gender parity report that World Economic Forum brings out every year.

In the 2022 edition, Rwanda has been ranked 6th among 146 nations way ahead of India (135), the US (27) and the UK (22).

This ranking is no fluke and is an outcome of conscious efforts by the government to improve the lot of the women. Today, Rwanda is the first and the only country in the world to have a female majority Parliament. As many as 61 per cent of all legislators in the Lower House are women. In the Upper House, their representation is 35 per cent. Compare this with the global average where in 81 per cent of all legislatures women hold less than 33 per cent of the seats.

It does not end there. Thirteen of the 26 members in the Rwandan Cabinet are women. And so are the four of seven Supreme Court judges. That apart, they occupy significant posts in government and private sectors. Their share among workers in the informal sector is 88 per cent.

Significantly, the country is close to achieving wage parity with women earning 88 cents to every dollar men earn for the same job (Indian women earn roughly 20 cents for every dollar men make).

Even as late as mid-1990s, the lot of Rwandan women was not good — even remotely so. They were not entitled to own or inherit property, hold any political office, run any profit-making business, or even voice their opinion in public. They were expected to be docile and subservient to men. Rapes were common and mostly went unpunished. Girls were not educated. Early marriage and early child bearing were order of the day. In other words, women were seen as a property that was needed to produce babies.

Tragedy, a catalyst

A tragedy changed all this. In 1994, the country was witness to a genocide — the 100 days of violence that broke out between Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Hutus (accounting for 85 per cent of the population) held Tutsi (14 per cent) rebels responsible for downing the plane of then Rwandan President, a Hutu. Anywhere between half a million to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. More than 25 lakh women and children were raped and 95,000 children were orphaned. At the end of the conflict, 70 per cent of the surviving population was woman. Men were either killed, jailed or had fled the country after the orgy of violence. Suddenly, women found themselves stepping in to fill the vacuum in almost all walks of life.

Compulsion on one side and the regret from the despicable crimes that were committed against women during the conflict forced the Rwandan Patriotic Front (it ended the civil war and came to power in 1996 after the genocide) to support the women-friendly policies. A Ministry for Gender and Family Promotion was set up and a gender sensitive legal and policy framework was put in place.

That women were in position of power helped in pushing through some badly needed laws. In 1997, rapes were being punished as war crimes and a law was passed to treat it as the gravest offence. In 1999, women were allowed to inherit property.

Reservation for women

In 2003, a new Constitution that implemented gender quota in elected position, was approved. Thirty per cent of seats in any decision-making organ of the government was reserved for women. A tough law on gender-based violence was introduced in 2009. Marital rape in now a crime. That year a Gender Monitoring Office became operational to oversee gender indicators both in government and private sectors.

A National Education Task Force was set up and gender parity was achieved in primary education. Rwanda has a strong political commitment to eliminating discrimination against women and girls in education. Secondary education enrolment is also high though the same cannot be said about tertiary education.

Despite these successes, concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of these changes on the ground. Many say that the empowerment of the women ‘stops at the front door’. Studies, including those involving elected representatives, have shown that women are still expected by men to do the menial jobs at home. Experts blame this on the top-down approach to the reforms.

Human rights organisations have also accused President Paul Kagame, without whose support none of these changes would have been possible, of many violations including jailing two women candidates who challenged him in earlier presidential elections.

Yet, a number of studies show that women in Rwanda feel more respected today than before as their voice is heard. The government, for its part, is trying to correct the shortcomings with a Revised National Gender Policy. It not only addresses the policy gaps but also involves men and boys in gender promotion.

Rwanda has shown that whatever the deep-rooted cultural norms and stereotypes or the economic status, if there is political it is possible to significantly bridge the gender gap. A crucial lesson for India at a time when its gender parity record is worsening, if the latest WEF ranking is any indication. The country has Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan for company. Certainly not a good place to be in.

Published on July 21, 2022
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