Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the opening address delivered by the First Lady of Rwanda, Her Excellency, Mrs Jeannette Kagame at ‘Women and Poverty: A Human Rights Approach’ on 28 April 2014. A full version of this address is available on the Imbuto Foundation website.
We celebrate the great strides made in advancing women’s roles and rights: I speak for Rwanda, when I say that the government has established an environment for women to thrive. At the same time, we are mindful of our responsibility to keep fighting for the rights of women and girls; the journey ahead is still long.
There is no more appropriate time to reflect on our experience before and during the 1994 genocide. We came from a society defined by alienation, oppression and separation. Women had no rights to inherit any property. A woman was prohibited from conducting business without permission from her husband. Our society was purely patriarchal: women were considered movable assets, with the primary purpose of bearing children.
As women were conveniently perceived to be helpless, it appeared to be the perfect excuse for men to make themselves stronger. In this process, poverty for women was perpetuated. They had no access to resources; their opportunities were extremely limited.
Today we live in more dynamic times. The level of ambition is much higher as individuals, families, communities and countries. There is competition to be better and in order to satisfy these demands, one must work extremely hard. Gone are the days when women stay home to cook, clean and have children.
With a population of 52% women, freeing the productive energies of women was fundamental to the much-needed transformation of Rwanda. There was no alternative: we had just emerged from genocide. And so women became a powerful force for change, from the smallest village council to the highest tiers of government. It became, and still is, a constitutional requirement to have 30% women in decision-making positions in the public sector.
With this in place, Rwanda managed to enjoy the highest female legislative representation worldwide. 40% of the cabinet and the judiciary are women. Discrimination or exclusion for any citizen is punishable by Rwandan law. Rwandan women have been given a chance to contribute to nation building.
Allow me to highlight some of the good progress we are experiencing.
Not only has Rwanda achieved universal education; but girls’ enrolment rate at primary school is at 98%. Primary education is compulsory and free in public schools.
Between 1960 and 1990 only 2,500 students graduated from university; over the last 20 years around 84,000 students have graduated from tertiary institutions. Today’s Rwanda promotes education for every single child.
Article 37 of the constitution states that ‘persons with the same competence and ability have the right to equal pay for equal work without discrimination.’ In the late 90’s an inheritance law granted equal rights to sons and daughters.
Between 2008 and 2012 Rwanda was able to lift 1 million people out of poverty.
HIV+ pregnant women and their children have access to PMTCT services in 85% of our health facilities. Because of the success of Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV, we have managed to take the next step and eliminate the transmission.
Rwandan women are now delivering their babies in health facilities, and this has contributed significantly to a reduction in maternal mortality; putting Rwanda on track for MDG4 (reducing child mortality) and MDG 5 (improving maternal health).
Rwanda has also instituted a system of maternal death audits, which investigates the circumstances surrounding a death and recommends solutions for preventing future fatalities.
These modest improvements make us optimistic. The positive contributions women have made to different aspects of society have won them the confidence of Rwandan men and society at large. However, I challenge each one of you here to think about what we are doing with this space and support? We still have work to do. Allow me to share some of my thoughts on this:
My 21-year-old daughter had had a tough week at school; she came home and complained that it was all too much to manage. Her younger brother responded: ‘You women asked to be empowered; do you want to get an education and work, or do you want to stay at home?’
This amusing exchange is a reminder that we should make the best of the opportunities. We have to choose either ‘to be looked after’ or ‘to be active partners’. We cannot have the best of both worlds.