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These 5 Places Tried Bold Political Experiments. Did They Work?

Judging by political representation alone, Rwanda is the most feminist country on Earth. More than 60 percent of Rwandan parliamentarians are women—a higher proportion than any other national legislature, and a statistic often trotted out to bolster Rwanda’s status as a development darling.

Rwanda achieves equality by design: Of the 10 countries with the highest levels of female political representation, six, including Rwanda, legislate gender quotas that set aside a certain number of seats for women; political parties in at least two others have voluntary quotas.

If the goal is to put more women into national legislatures, Rwanda shows that quotas work—a message the United States, where only about 24 percent of Congress is female, might heed. But whether quotas give women real political and social power is more complicated.

“Even though, yes, there are women here in top positions, it’s more of a smoke screen,” says Diane Shima Rwigara, a 38-year-old Rwandan women’s rights activist and businesswoman. “There’s no space for women who dare to challenge the status quo. And you can’t blame them really, because to be able to be in the government, you have to be compliant. Because no one is allowed to have an independent voice here in Rwanda.”

Rwigara would know. She ran for president in 2017, challenging Rwanda’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame, who has been in office since 2000 and has maintained his grip on power by squashing the free press and disappearing opposition members. Just a few days after Rwigara announced her run, nude photos of her appeared online, part of an apparent smear campaign (Rwigara says the images were photoshopped). A few months after that, the country’s National Electoral Commission disqualified her from running—a move that was criticized by the U.S. State Department, the European Union and Amnesty International. By August, Rwigara was placed under house arrest. That month, Kagame won the election with 99 percent of the vote.


Rwigara and her mother, among others, were arrested in September 2017 and charged with “inciting insurrection” and other offenses. They were eventually acquitted, but the message was clear. “Everyone has to follow the party line,” Rwigara says. “So, that’s all I can say about being a woman in politics in Rwanda. You have to just do as you’re told.”

“That’s all I can say about being a woman in politics in Rwanda. You have to just do as you’re told.”

Rwanda’s gender quotas grew out of the country’s 1994 genocide, which killed between 500,00 and a million people; women were raped in staggering numbers. The majority of the dead were men, and in the aftermath of the genocide, a great many perpetrators and suspected perpetrators, also overwhelmingly men, fled the country, leaving behind a scarred nation that was 70 percent female. Women who had long been excluded from politics and public decision-making, not to mention the economy, were suddenly thrust into new roles as heads of their households and leaders in the reconciliation process. This is not unusual: Aili Mari Tripp, professor of political science and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Melanie M. Hughes, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, have written that women often gain political legitimacy and power in post-conflict settings in part because they “are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as having had less of a hand in creating conflict.” According to Tripp’s research, African countries that ended conflicts after 1985 have almost twice the number of women in Parliament than African countries where recent conflicts have not occurred.

In Rwanda, Kagame, who had led the forces that fought back against the genocide, took over as president in 2000 and found himself in charge of a country where women were a crucial political constituency and had played key roles in rebuilding peace and security. He seemed to demonstrate a genuine interest in women’s rights—promoting women in politics was good for development, for the nation’s reputation and for shoring up women’s loyalty to his Rwandan Patriotic Front. When Rwanda adopted a new constitution in 2003, it mandated that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be set aside for women. While only women can cast ballots for the women’s seats, Rwandan men have been quick to vote for women, as well. By 2008, women were taking a majority of parliamentary seats after every election. Yet, as Kagame’s administration adopted increasingly harsh strategies to stay in power and crush opposition, Parliament became an institution largely charged with doing his bidding and hostile to dissent, while women’s empowerment became an expedient way to distract credulous international aid groups and members of the press.

The authoritarian exploitation of quotas doesn’t totally undermine their value: Research outside Rwanda has found that quotas translate into policies that benefit women. And in Rwanda, female politicians say their presence does make a difference. “We sometimes have different priorities,” says Odette Nyiramilimo, a Rwandan senator and former minister of state for social affairs. Female legislators, she says, were the force behind legal reforms that gave women equal property rights, and in 2012, women in Parliament pushed to legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality or threat to the pregnant woman’s life. “This is something that if women were not there, it would never have passed,” Nyiramilimo says, of the abortion law. “I know that men didn’t want to hear anything about that.”

The elevation of women in power also has “a significant symbolic effect … on the general expectations that young women have in their lives,” says Marie Berry, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and author of War, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Women are more likely to elevate other women, and researchers have found that gender quotas, even in authoritarian countries, might help to gradually integrate women into influential roles not just in politics, but in business, culture and even the home.


The trouble comes, Berry says, in the gap between expectations and reality. The effect of quotas has been to tell women in Rwanda that they have representation and a political voice. “But the reality is that, especially in Rwanda, the labor market has not caught up,” she says. While Rwandan women have relatively high levels of employment, there is a significant wage gap, with men taking on more wage labor and women remaining concentrated in unpaid domestic work. Families still expect that women will handle the bulk of child-rearing; domestic violence remains pervasive.

Here, Nyiramilimo agrees that Rwanda’s feminist work is unfinished. She disputes the idea that women’s political power only goes as far as Kagame allows, and argues that Rwandan women are doing well politically and legally. It’s the home front that still needs to change. “Women still face big challenges in the culture,” says Nyiramilimo. “In our culture, for example, the man has to be the head, the chief of the family. But, in the law, it has changed. The two have the same power. … And that has been put in place because women are there.”

“We don’t see a simultaneous dismantling of patriarchal structures within the home, within the economy,” Berry adds. For the average Rwandan woman, the high proportion of women in Parliament doesn’t mean much.

What can Rwanda’s experiment with gender quotas teach the United States? It’s clear that quotas, if enforced, increase women’s political power at least to some degree, and the symbolic value of women in power can have trickle-down effects. While Americans might bristle at a constitutional mandate, political parties could adopt voluntary quotas, pledging that a certain percentage of the candidates they run will be women. That would be easier for Democrats than Republicans: There are twice as many female Democratic senators as Republican, and nearly seven times as many Democratic congresswomen as Republican. Still, neither party is at parity, let alone even approaching Rwanda’s numbers.

But quotas alone don’t bring equality into being. Once in office, women need to be able to legislate and set their priorities, not simply take orders from an executive or party leader. And to be effective advocates for women more generally, elected officials have to be accountable to robust civilian movements. “What Rwanda really shows is that for women’s empowerment to be meaningful, to be durable, to be impactful and felt in the lives of ordinary women, it has to be coupled with strong civil society organizations and a women’s movement that is able to hold the government accountable and operate in the space between the government and ordinary people,” Berry says.

Representation without true political freedom is a feminist farce, Rwigara believes. Until all of a country’s citizens can speak, organize and compete for power without fear, she says, “the percentage of women in Parliament is just a number.”

Jill Filipovic is a journalist and author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.

Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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