Crowds of police officers and nurses converged in a room painted with bright alphabet letters at a hospital in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. A plush frog and a couple of dolls with Afros lay on the table, props that might be used by a child to entertain herself while her mother seeks care or to act out a haunting scene of abuse for a counselor.
The Isange One Stop Centre is just the first in a growing, countrywide network of clinics where survivors of sexual violence can seek medical treatment, counseling services, and legal help filing claims against their attackers. The design is intended to ensure that the patient has to tell her story only once.
Before we stepped into the center, we'd spent an hour with Rwanda's top police commander, Inspector General Emmanuel Gasana. A wide-chested, muscular man, he peppered his comments with surprising phrases like "prevention mechanisms" and "gender budgeting."
"When we first started this gender-based violence work," he said, "we started to see the numbers [of reported attacks] going up. I was asking all the time, What's happening? But because of the campaign, it moved things." Women began to see attacks on them as crimes and, very gradually, as traumas they'd endured for which they shouldn't feel ashamed, Gasana explained. Given his gold-decorated epaulets and pants tucked into polished boots, the words seemed incongruous. But he delivered them with an obvious sense of pride. Community-policing committees—90,000 civilians across the country, he noted—are also on the case, charged with maintaining security.
Twenty years after a genocide, these efforts are evidence of the impact of Rwanda's new vanguard of leaders: women who have played a central role in all aspects of the country's rebuilding. The One Stop Centre and the broader system of trained officers the police are putting in place are the consequence of a major push to make good on the government's policy of zero tolerance for sexual violence.
New Laws and Protections
The most famous example of strides for Rwandan women came in 2008, when Rwanda became the first country ever to have a female majority in parliament. That same year, the legislature adopted a progressive law making domestic violence illegal and mandating harsh prison terms for rape.
"We don't want to just make a law," Judith Kanakuze, who led the bill's drafting, said in a prescient 2005 interview. She wanted to change behavior—to stop men from beating their partners and stop women from tolerating the beating. Kanakuze saw the law as one element in a larger strategy to change cultural expectations that were dangerous for women.
In years prior, Rwanda's parliament had passed pivotal laws enabling women to own land and daughters to inherit property. The legislature's newly formed Forum for Parliamentary Women played a central role in both bills.
In subsequent elections, female members of parliament widened their margin. Last September they picked up even more seats and now hold 64 percent of them. Thirty percent is a given—the quota set in the post-genocide constitution to boost women's representation throughout the government. Credit for pushing the percentage beyond that minimum goes primarily to the political parties, which placed women prominently on their candidate slates. Most influentially, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by President Paul Kagame, mandated that its lineup be 50 percent female.
Power to the Capable
The decision to focus on women's equality "is embedded within the RPF," said Christopher Kayumba, a lecturer at the National University of Rwanda and political pundit. It's a matter not only of rights but of practicality. "Kagame isn't pushing for women just for the sake of it. He's mostly interested in capable people."
In 1994 Rwanda was demolished and grieving, its coffers empty and coffins full. The post-genocide government had to hand off responsibilities to dedicated party members who had proved to be talented managers earlier when the RPF was organizing after decades in exile.
Aloisea Inyumba was 29 when she became Minister of Gender and Social Affairs. Fatuma Ndangiza worked beside Inyumba as they reconstructed the ministry. For a year the new government staff were paid with food. "But we were so committed," Ndangiza explained. She went on to describe how Inyumba, with her background in fund-raising for the RPF, "had this idea that women should never be beggars. She didn't want women to see themselves as victims but to be powerful. She said, 'After all, if our mothers have brought us up to this level, why can't Rwandan women be economically empowered actors?'"
Some women balk at having their work recognized as significant because of their gender. One high-level official grumpily waved away any discussion of her achievements as characteristic of "women's triumphs" in Rwanda. But the next generation understands the importance of the acknowledgement.
Nadine Niyitegeka, 22 years old, graduated in December from the country's first women's college, the Akilah Institute for Women. She attributes women's advancement to female leaders having proved their worth. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, they "showed how powerful they were, and the government started believing in women," she said. "If you can have many Aloisea Inyumbas in this next generation—that's us, because we're still young—we can do as much as she did or even more. Our country can develop and reach a great step."
That young women like Niyitegeka have their sights set high is a testament to the influence of iconic role models. In addition, her generation, which has grown up in the post-genocide era, has seen its prospects for education rise significantly, placing those bold ambitions within reach.
Girls Can Do Math
In 2009 the government mandated basic education for all young Rwandans, girls as well as boys. It's become cheaper to attend school, though students say related expenses can be prohibitive. The change came about because women challenged the long-standing cultural notion that sending daughters to school was much less valuable than sending sons.
"At first people would often say, Well, you know, girls normally stay at home, so this is a bit complicated. Girls don't do math!" said Therese Bishagara, a Rwandan refugee who grew up and went to school in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then moved to Kinshasa, the DRC's capital, to study molecular biology. After the genocide she moved back to Rwanda and was soon tapped to direct the newly created Kigali Health Institute.
Bishagara and a dozen other female university graduates decided to start a chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). "It was part of the effort to ensure that the country would not replicate previous policies of discrimination," she said. "Even the children of parents who had committed atrocities—we wanted to ensure that those girls would also become the [educated] elites of this country." The FAWE women trained young men and women from rural areas to go back to their communities and urge parents to let their children be educated.
When FAWE opened a school in 1999, its organizers decided to focus on sciences "to prove that girls can study technical fields, whether biology or economics, and not only social studies," Bishagara said. "It was compelling to work with prominent women who could stand as an example of the value of educating girls. They could say, You see, I went to school, and now I have this important position. Seeing them in office sends the message, You must give opportunities to your daughter as well, because one day she could become a minister, a director—just like her brothers." Today Bishagara is a senator.
The Ministry of Education reports that girls complete high school at rates slightly higher than boys and that the percentage of women at universities is steadily on the rise. Still, despite the many strides, there have been controversies and obstacles.
How Strong Are the Gains?
Last year parliament rolled back the country's maternity leave, giving new mothers six weeks off rather than three months. How could those representatives—the vast majority with children themselves—not be more sympathetic to the needs of women with newborns? Officially, the policy shift came from a concern that companies would discriminate against women who might need paid time off to have a baby. Proponents argued that a woman could choose to take more leave with reduced pay and that eventually a special government fund would make up the difference.
Privately, though, many people frowned upon the decision, saying it illustrated the powerful female parliamentarians' insensitivity to the needs of less privileged women. Furthermore, the maternity-leave debate applied only to an advantaged slice of citizens; it's out of the realm of consideration for the 85 percent of Rwandan women who are still farmers.
Similarly, researchers studying the impact of women's leadership point out that the benefits haven't yet reached women who live in rural areas or have lower levels of education. A report published last year by the German development fund and the Rwandan government noted that women's participation in some local-level positions is as low as 3 percent.
The government's own Gender Monitoring Office documented a "wide existing gender gap" between policy and practice. "In other words," stated a 2010 report, gender equality "has not fully trickled down to the grassroots level," despite laws, policies, strategies, and mechanisms.
Dinah Musindarwezo is a gender specialist who now heads the pan-African women's rights group FEMNET, based in Kenya. Working for years in her native Rwanda, she was frustrated at times by what felt like the slow pace of progress. But her optimism grew along with the scope of her work.
"When I stepped outside of Rwanda, I realized all the things we're doing right," she said, then laughed when reminded of her exasperation three years before. "Of course, deep social changes take time, especially when dealing with communities where education levels are still low. But it's clear how, pushed along by political leadership, there is a change of attitudes in people toward women in Rwanda that I do not see in almost any other African country."
Swanee Hunt is founder and chair of the Washington-based Institute for Inclusive Security, which advances women's leadership for security and social justice. She is Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former U.S. ambassador to Austria. Her book Rwandan Women Rising will be published in 2015 by Duke University Press.
Laura Heaton is a writer and journalist based in East Africa.