BACKGROUND PAPER - “WALKING the TALK”: 22-23 February 2007, Rwandan Women Parliamentarians- host an International Conference on “Gender, nation building: the role of Parliaments”.
Kigali, 22 February 2007: Increasingly, Rwandan women are taking an active role in nation-building. They not only head about a third of all households, but have also taken up many jobs that were formerly the preserve of men, in fields such as construction and mechanics, but also in business and politics.
As a result of the 2003 elections, Rwanda has come closer than any country in reaching parity between men and women in a national parliament, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women in Rwanda now top the world rankings of women in national parliaments, with about 49 per cent of representation compared to a world average of 15.1 per cent. This achievement is, by any measure in the world, remarkable and noteworthy, especially if one takes into account Rwanda’s recent political history and the development challenges that it faces.
"We shall continue to appeal to women to offer themselves as candidates and also to vote for gender sensitive men who will defend and protect their interests […] Women’s elected Representatives form a part of their constituency and, as such, affect the legitimacy of political decisions…Increased participation of women in politics is, therefore, necessary for improved social, economic and political conditions of their families and the entire country" President Paul Kagame in 2003: Speaking about parliamentary elections (quoted in Powley, Elizabeth. Rwanda: Women Hold Up Half the Parliament, pg 6)
Also more recently, as a result of elections held in early 2006, the percentage of women now occupying decision-making positions in Rwanda’s local government administration (cell, sector and district levels combined) has increased from 28.0% in 2003 to 40.2% (National Report on the 2006 Local Elections. Republic of Rwanda, National Electoral Commission: Kigali, April 2006). Furthermore, according to the Beijing Secretariat and Rwanda’s Ministry of Gender and the Promotion of Family, 40% of Rwanda’s provinces are governed by women. Within the judiciary women comprise 44.4% of Supreme Court judges nationally- and the court’s President is a woman. Finally, more that 30% of cabinet ministers are also women.
With the support of UNDP and other partners, members of the Forum of Rwanda Women Parliamentarians (FFRP) hosted an international conference on 22-23 February, to which world leaders were invited to share experiences with their counterparts from various countries around the world. This conference also served as an opportunity to seek support and exchange ideas on how this achievement can better be nurtured and sustained. The disclosure was made January 5 by the Forum president Hon. Judith Kanakuze, during a FFRP meeting held at the NOVOTEL Hotel Kigali, earlier on in preparation for the meeting.
The Forum for women Parliamentarians started in 1996 with a very small number of women, soon after the genocide. Their main challenge was to find a way to champion women’s issues and to strategize on how they could increase in numbers and have a critical mass in parliament to be able to make a significant contribution to nation-building.
Hon. Connie Bwiza Sekamana explained, “When it comes to the Forum, we unite as women irrespective of political parties. So we don’t think of our parties, we think of the challenges that surround us as women” (Powley, 2006).
Women parliamentarians have achieved quite a lot and strive to be known for more than having achieved high office; they want to be known for their achievements in those offices. This was evidenced in a recent planning session of the Forum of Women Parliamentarians. A member of the FFRP executive committee stressed the importance of communicating with their constituents, of being more than “just” role models. We have to discuss “our activities, our priorities, our work” with them, she pointed out, not just be held up as “examples for examples’ sake.” (Powley, 2006).
“If we have such a high percentage of seats today, it’s not a question of chance,” said Hon. Constance Mukayuhi Rwaka, a Member of Parliament and an economist who chairs the Rwandan National Assembly’s Budget Commission. “After 1994 Rwanda was in quite a peculiar situation,” she says. “Women had really been mobilized across the country.” Hon. Rwaka recalls that after the genocide, women throughout the country joined forces, either informally or through associations, to help out those who were widowed or orphaned during the killing.
Women in the post-genocide era assert their agenda. The parliament has the responsibility to debate, amend, and approve or reject the Government’s budget, as submitted each year by the executive. Women parliamentarians see themselves as critical to this process. As Senator Odette Nyirimilimo put it, “Every September or October, every time we discuss the budget, we are asking ‘How will women benefit from this budget, and how will children benefit from this budget? (Powley, 2006) Quite a number of gender-sensitive laws have been passed, including the inheritance and family law, the land law and now the bill on gender-based violence.
“The United Nations Development Programme commends the efforts by the Government of Rwanda on gender equality and the promotion of women, as its leadership in this field is exemplary. The Millennium Development Goals can only be achieved through an equal distribution of benefits and responsibilities between men and women. A genuine commitment to gender equality is needed from the leaders of every country to make development for all possible. The Government of Rwanda has clearly understood this reality. UNDP, as a committed partner, is thus pleased to continue to provide support to all Rwandans in an effort to promote gender equality”. Moustapha Soumaré, UNDP Resident Representative, Rwanda 2007
With the support of the UNDP Country Office and under the leadership of its president, Member of Parliament Hon. Judith Kanakuze, the FFRP adopted a five year Strategic Plan in 2005 to guide its activities through 2009 and reach its goal of developing “policies, laws, programs, and practices, that ensure, equality between men and women.” Based on an internal needs assessment and a lengthy, wide-ranging consultative drafting process, the Strategic Plan was developed to address four priority areas, namely, building the institutional and organizational capacity of the FFRP itself; enhancing gender equality within the institution of Parliament; initiating gender-sensitive laws; and improving gender-based governmental oversight.
These policies, together with provisions in the constitution establishing formal structures -such as the National Council of Women- provide means through which women may have a greater say in the formulation of policies that affect their lives. The significant representation of women in decision-making structures at all levels in Rwanda presently provides a window of opportunity for wider social and economic benefits for women to match gains made in the political sphere. Notably, the formal inclusion of women in governance structures means that national, regional and local priorities – i.e. how resources are allocated – may now be defined with the meaningful input of women, whose life experience can provide an awareness of the community and of the nation’s needs, concerns and interests that is different from that of the men.
The story of the Rwanda women Parliamentarians is demonstration that the struggle for the women’s cause is not in vain! With good strategies, and clear leadership, Gender equality and women’s empowerment is achievable.