In Rwanda, Women Rule

In Rwanda, Women Rule

Why you should care

Because 20 years removed from the depths of horrible national trauma, a new model for women — and the rest of the world — has arisen. 

America may have launched feminist icons from Gloria Steinem (famously turning 80 this month) to Washington power brokers from Lindy Boggs to Hillary Clinton. But Rwanda is putting us to shame.

Sixty-four percent of the lower house of the Rwandan Parliament are women. They represent the largest percentage of women in a national governing body in the world, elected in the fall of 2013. In fact, no other country comes close. Little Andorra has 14 female representatives out of 28. Every other nation tallies less than half.

How the tiny and historically troubled nation achieved this serves as a lesson in rising from the ashes. April marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when up to 1 million people died during 100 days of terror, most of them men.

When the bloodshed stopped, women had to pick up the pieces of a patriarchal society. Before the killings, women stayed home with children and worked the fields while the men sought wages elsewhere. Inheritance laws favored fathers and sons. But after the genocide, women formed a key part of the recovery.

Millions of dollars of international aid supported women’s rebuilding efforts. In 1999, laws changed to give women equal footing on inheritances. A later bill addressed land ownership. Another restricted domestic abuse.

Quotas written into Rwanda’s national constitution in 2003 require women to occupy 30 percent of all decision-making bodies in government.

That’s not to say Rwandan women have life easy. Take reproductive health, for example: almost half of all pregnancies are unintended, and almost half of those end in abortions (many clandestine). The infant mortality rate has dropped slightly in recent years, but it’s still far from more medically-advanced nations: 39 for every 1,000 births. In the U.S., it’s 6 deaths for every 1,000 infants. Education is another touchstone. The female literacy rate in Rwanda is 78 percent, according to the United Nations. Nearby Kenya: 94 percent.

But experts agree women in Rwanda have made great strides in two decades, and the parliamentary numbers reflect that. The biggest change regarding women’s rights in government may have come from quotas written into the national constitution in 2003, which required women to occupy 30 percent of all decision-making bodies in government. That’s when the big changes in government started.

It’s hard to imagine quotas for women in government passing in the U.S. But maybe it’s time to consider some more drastic measures, considering that the U.S. ties for 83rd in the number of women in the legislature internationally, barely above the conservative United Arab Emirates (85th).

Even Cuba does better (by far).

Are you listening, Washington?

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