“when you take it upon yourself to politicise human bodies & the right to keep breathing, without paying a steep price for it, don’t pretend to be shocked when we start to take politics personally. as you tell us, ‘deal with it.” – Amanda Lovelace

A Night I Wish I Did Not Live To See

In some moments, you feel so many things at once; it becomes difficult to articulate or settle on just one emotion. This was one of those moments for me. A man, high and drunk, barged into the home I shared with my friends and hit one of my friends across the face when she very politely asked him, ‘why he barged in and what he wanted’. According to him, he barged in because he was a “community security” and we had been making “too much noise”. He didn’t stop there; he went ahead demanding that ‘we’ show him the owner of the house; he said, “the person who paid the bills” because of course, we were all young women (extra stress on the “women”), so there was no way we are capable of paying our own bills.

Before moving to Rwanda, all I knew was if there was any place in the world where things were looking good for women, it was Rwanda. With about 64% of Parliament members-elect women at the time (Warner, 2016), Rwanda accounted for the highest percentage of women in politics not only on the continent but in almost all the world (Warner, 2016), what could be wrong?

More than shaken, the events of that night with unanticipated reinforcement brought back thoughts and questions I didn’t even realize my mind had developed over the time of my stay in Rwanda.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

I suddenly had a flashback to that day on my way from school when I had witnessed a motor guy slap a lady who was crossing the street. The lady in question when she crossed the street had done so with total lack of haste, whilst she talked with another woman who crossed with her. —[If you think that his actions are thus justified. Check yourself. Chances are you are in desperate need of prayers.]

This man not only hit this woman; he proceeded to slur what I assume were insults at her. However, he spoke in Kinyarwanda, a language I do not understand, so I acknowledge that my assumptions might be completely wrong and he was complimenting her.

Looking back at the two incidents I have laid out; I realise that beyond the unheard-of public actions of these men, I am more disturbed by how on both occasions people who witnessed went about their normal business like nothing was wrong.

Hard Truths and a Big SHOCK!

On this note, I would like to throw in that some women are huge parts of the problems women face. It is a hard truth, but a truth still.

After the incident at home, on the quest to ensure justice was served, my friends and I arrived at the police station. There, we found that it was a lady in charge. Under normal circumstances, I would think that with a lady was in charge; she would handle the case carefully and intentionally, paying attention to every detail and person involved. Big SHOCK, this lady disregarded the abused and the complaints put before her, proceeding to patronize the perpetrator. When we finally managed to interrupt her laughter-filled conversation with the perpetrator, she told us we had to provide her with a hospital report that indicated my friend got hit on.

Now, the problem here isn’t about the lady officer asking us to get a report; some may even say it is a standard procedure and the politically correct thing to do. The problem lies with how it was left totally up to us to find a doctor and make it happen. Whatever happened to having a “standard protocol for medical exams following sexual and domestic assault, and requiring all hospitals and health centres to conform to the defined procedure” (Human Rights Watch, 2004)?

It took us going to three hospitals, explaining our case, and being refused to accept the bitter truth that we weren’t going to be seeing any doctor that night. Resigned, we headed back home with the realization that Rwanda must have missed church the Sunday when the gospel of “survivors-centred approach” in dealing with GBV was preached.

I Have Questions Haunting Me..

These events and more others that I have been unfortunate to witness leaves me with many questions. Are gender equality and women empowerment a good image strategy for Rwanda whilst women continue to live in terror? Why is it that Rwanda’s female-dominated parliaments have made no significant gains in women’s legal and socioeconomic rights (Marima, 2017)? 

Are gender equality and women empowerment a good image strategy for Rwanda whilst women continue to live in terror?

“Seek and You Shall Find…”

A report by Human Rights Watch (2004) on domestic and sexual violence against women, states that victims of these crimes face obstacles to accountability and health care. But, this is not a new story to Rwanda. According to the same report, perpetrators of the genocide employed sexual violence against women and girls as a tool” to humiliate and subjugate (Human Rights Watch, 2004). In 2004, ten years after the 1994 genocide, many of the tens of thousands of Rwandan women who were victims of sexual violence remained without legal redress or reparation (Human Rights Watch, 2004). There is a lack of updates as to whether there have been any changes in this regard over recent years.

According to the HRW (2004) report, deficiencies and gaps in Rwanda’s laws, and their implementation thereof, greatly discourages reporting and proper investigation and prosecution of these crimes. As a result, domestic and sexual violence goes unreported (Mukashema, 2014). 

HRW (2004) reports that while the Rwandan Government launched a nationwide campaign against sexual violence, the Rwandan Penal Code is critically flawed; it does not define rape. As a result of which, rape victims are left unprotected (Human Rights Watch, 2004). Due to this same weakness of the definition of rape, inconsistencies in handling cases, and rendering justice also persists (Semanza, 2012).

Reports by Africa Renewal – Violence Against Women (VAW) – Rwanda show that 1 out of 3 women in Rwanda experiences domestic violence daily. Another report indicates that 41.2% (Albert and Rodriques, 2018)  to 56% (Mbaraga & Nakkazi, n.d.) of Rwandan women have continued to experience domestic violence since the age of 15 (Albert and Rodriques, 2018), (Mbaraga & Nakkazi, n.d.).

It does not end there. Research shows that 22% of Rwandan women aged 15 to 49 experience sexual violence daily (Mbaraga & Nakkazi, n.d.) with a standing underage pregnancy rate of more than 800 girls a year (Mbaraga & Nakkazi, n.d.).

Here are the Tales; Listen

Why is the high percentage of women involved in higher positions of the country’s government not reflected in the everyday life of the average Rwandan woman? I know the answer to none of these questions. What I know is that Rwanda is ‘one city, with two tales’. The first tale is of a Rwanda which every woman dreams. Over there, women are empowered and free. Then, there’s the tale of a Rwanda, which is every woman’s darkest nightmare. There, women are caged and tied down.

There’s one Rwanda in which women have voices and the other where ‘they are only allowed to do and say certain things as dictated’ by ‘certain higher powers’ (Marima, 2017). One Rwanda where ‘the government is committed to increasing women’s economic participation’ (UN Women, 2015), and the other where “women account for only 0.25% of all off-farm jobs” (UN Women, 2015); “experience higher rates of unemployment (17.5%) than men (16.1%) (Albert and Rodriques, 2018); and endure a gender pay gap higher than the global average, at 27% (in comparison to 23%) (Albert and Rodriques, 2018).

Rwanda for the longest of times has been portrayed by the media as “a model for equal representation and women empowerment” (Marima, 2017), “the poster-child of gender equality”(Essa, 2018), and “A model of gender inclusiveness(Warner, 2016). However, critical reports on the everyday life of the Rwandan woman leaves one struggling to come to terms with just how far apart different perspectives can be.

Is Rwanda — our poster child of gender equality — a place where a woman’s power and freedom ends at the door of her own home (Warner, 2017)? The Rwandan National Police for the period between 2009-2010 reported that a total of 818 women were battered by their husbands, and 121 killed (Mukashema, 2014).

Contesting the media’s narrative of Rwanda, Diana Shima Rwigara said, “I don’t believe in the lie being sold to the world that Rwandan women have a voice – we don’t. We’re only allowed to do or say certain things as dictated by the ruling party. If you don’t, you pay a high price” (Marima, 2017). Rwigara is the first Rwandan woman to run for president as an independent – and the only woman in the 2017 race (Marima, 2017). She also pointed out that having the world’s highest proportion of women in Parliament does not mean Rwanda is comfortable with women in power (Marima, 2017).

“I don’t believe in the lie being sold to the world that Rwandan women have a voice – we don’t. We’re only allowed to do or say certain things as dictated by the ruling party. If you don’t, you pay a high price”Diana Shima Rwigara

Accusing the country’s president of over 19 years of being authoritarian, whilst also discrediting his commitment to women empowerment, Rwagara warned, “Kagame may be credited with ending a horrific genocide and improving the country’s economic growth, but his increasingly authoritarian stance could further oppress women, rather than empower them” (Marima, 2017). Rwagira was after a series of events, disqualified from the elections, arrested, and taken into custody for inciting insurrection against the government (Essa, 2018), and tax evasion and forgery alongside her family (Aljazeera, 2017). Charges she denied, even after her release in 2018 (Aljazeera, 2018).

Then there’s the story of Victoire Ingabire. Ingabire’s story is so similar to Rwagira’s that after hearing it in full one may feel as if he/she has been ‘Deja-vued’. In 2010, Victoire Ingabire was again the only Rwandan woman who bidded the country’s presidency (Essa, 2018). Fast forward, just like the case of Diana Shima Rwagira, she was disqualified from the elections, and taken into custody for conspiring against the government and genocide denial (Aljazeera, 2018); charges she denied (Aljazeera, 2018).

After her release in 2018 (Aljazeera, 2018), Ingabire said, “This is the beginning of the opening of political spaces in Rwanda, I hope” (Aljazeera, 2018). She proceeded to call on Rwandan President Paul Kagame “to release other political prisoners” (Aljazeera, 2018).

Pick a Side or Don’t

Do we sense a pattern? Or is this another event I must attribute to my tendency to conjure conspiracies? When Shima Rwagara said, “…if you don’t, you pay a high price” was this the price she spoke of? How many other women who we do not know or hear of are paying their share of this price in similar or different ways? Is there something going on that we do not know?

On this note, I would like to say that I too am just a young woman with many questions of my own. I hope you didn’t come here looking for answers.

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Albert, Z. R., & Rodriques, S. (2018). Gender Equality Strategy: UNDP Rwanda (2019-2022). United Nations Development Program, 24.

Aljazeera. (2017, September 4). Rwandan police arrest Diane Rwigara, family members | Rwanda | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/04/rwandan-police-arrest-diane-rwigara-family-members/

Aljazeera. (2018, September 15). Rwandan opposition leader among 2,100 released from prison. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/9/15/rwandan-opposition-leader-among-2100-released-from-prison

Essa, A. (2018, September 20). The mixed tale of women’s empowerment in Rwanda | Rwanda News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/9/20/the-mixed-tale-of-womens-empowerment-in-rwanda

Human Rights Watch. (2004, September 30). Struggling to Survive. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/09/30/struggling-survive/barriers-justice-rape-victims-rwanda

Marima, T. (2017, August 16). Rwanda: World Leader for Women in Politics (Unless They Oppose Kagame). Women and Girls. rwanda-world-leader-for-women-in-politics-unless-they-oppose-kagame

Mbaraga, R., & Nakkazi, E. (n.d.). VAW in Rwanda | Africa Renewal. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.un.org/africarenewal/news/vaw-rwanda

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Semanza, J. D. (2012). Memoire Online—Legal analysis on the crime of rape under ICTR jurisdiction—Jean Damascene SEMANZA. Memoire Online. https://www.memoireonline.com/03/17/9743/m_Legal-analysis-on-the-crime-of-rape-under-ICTR-jurisdiction19.html

UN Women, U. W. (2015, September 27). Rwanda. UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/get-involved/step-it-up/commitments/rwanda

United Nations – Rwanda, UNFPA, & Republic of Rwanda. (n.d.). COUNTRY ASSESSMENT ON VIOLENCE AGAINST. 32.

Warner, G. (2016, July 29). Rwanda Is The No. 1 Country For Women In Power But They Still Face Challenges In Daily Life: Goats and Soda: NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/07/29/487360094/invisibilia-no-one-thought-this-all-womans-debate-team-could-crush-it