By Hope Mbabazi *
Rwanda is a landlocked country in central eastern Africa reputed in recent years for its highest rate of women parliamentarians. The economy has been growing every year since the 1994 Genocide. But the secret to success here has had far less to do with the tranquil climate and fertile soil than with a group of people who have emerged as Rwanda’s most potent economic force: women.
The year 2010 marks 16 years since the genocide, when 800,000 people died during three months of apocalypse. In the meantime, the country has become conceivably the world’s leading example of how empowering women can fundamentally transform post-conflict economies and fight the cycle of poverty.
That is particularly underlined by how women have embarked in all sectors of business. In the capital city of Kigali, women work and increasingly become owners of shops, whereby women own 49.5 percent of shops in the Kigali central business district, according to the City women’s council.
But it is not only in Kigali that women are showing their know-how and the ability to lead. Deep down in eastern province near the Akagera national park lies a village of approximately 50,000 people called Ndego.
Most Ndego’s women, trying their hands at the business of farming for the first time, were by far the faster ‘students’. They showed more willingness than men, officials say, to embrace new techniques aimed at improving quality and profit.
The stride of female entrepreneurialism, playing out in Kigali and across Rwanda in industries from agribusiness to tourism, has proved to be a bonus for efforts to rebuild the nation and fight poverty. Women more than men invest profits in the family, refurbish homes, improve nutrition, increase savings rates and spend on children’s education, officials here said.
It shows a big shift in gender economics in Rwanda’s post-genocide society, one that is changing the way younger generations of males view their mothers and sisters while offering a powerful lesson for other developing nations struggling to rebuild from the ashes of conflict.
“Rwanda’s economy has risen up from the genocide and prospered greatly on the backs of our women,” said Agnes Matilda Kalibata, minister of agriculture. In that process, Rwanda has changed forever and we are becoming a nation that understands that there are enormous financial benefits to equality.
The path to female prosperity runs through a path of male shame, we first visited the home of Jacques Habimana, a fisherman whose fishing boat was seized by microfinance officials recently after he failed to pay on a $200 bank loan. “He spent the money on women and liquor,” said his loan officer, Alfred Rukundo.
Further up the road, we reach the house of Yvonne Mukarutamu. The 40-year-old widow of army officer and mother of four obtained a $100 loan from a well established microfinance scheme (Duterimbere) in 2007 with a plan to support her family. She paid back the loan within a year. Last year, she took out a $500 loan to open a graining mill for maize flour. Her business is earning the family a relatively sum of 650 a month.
“They say that women care more about the family, but I do not know if that is the reality,” Mukarutamu said. “I think it has more to do with the one’s control. We know how to survive when men despair.”
Maybe it should come as no surprise that women have been solution in reconstructing Rwanda. In the effort to finance the reduction of poverty in the developing world, many leading experts said that women simply make better investments.
In India’s great economic transformation of the past 17 years, states that have the highest percentage of women in the labour force have grown the fastest as well as had the largest reductions in poverty, according to the World Bank.
For the most horrible reasons, Rwanda became a testing ground for such theories after the 1994 genocide. The massacre of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu militias, and the resulting reprisal, left Rwanda with a population that was 60 percent female and 40 percent male by the time the dead were buried.
Several studies have found that between 250,000 and 500,000 girls and women were sexually abused. Many married women also suffered the loss of their men, finding themselves in the role of the bread-earners who also had to care for children who had lost their parents during the genocide.
With thousands more men jailed for war crimes or living as refugees in neighboring Congo, women, at first by default, took on roles in business and politics. Although women had long enjoyed a relatively higher social status in Rwanda, women here still had weak property rights, and female entrepreneurs were rare if not non- existent.
That changed rapidly particularly in agriculture, where many women were required to take over farms. They found a partner in the barrage of foreign organizations that rushed into Rwanda following the genocide.
The recognition that reforms were required at all levels of society had dawned on the government even before the UN Security Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 was adopted. In fact, by 1999, reforms were passed enabling women to inherit property something that proved vitally important to female farmers.
At the same time, women began rising to higher ranks of political power. Today they hold some 55 percent of the seats in Rwanda’s parliament, the highest percentage in the world. They also account for 40 percent of President Paul Kagame’s cabinet, holding the top jobs in the ministries of commerce, agriculture, infrastructure, foreign affairs.
Resolution 1325 was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council in 2000 with a view to enabling a greater participation of women at all levels of institutional prevention, management and resolution of conflicts and the special protection of girls and women from sexual and other violence. Rwanda is one of the few countries that feels particularly committed to the resolution. In May, the government tabled an action plan to implement the resolution.
Success in economics mirrored the rise of women in politics. Today, 43 percent of Rwandan businesses are owned by women compared for instance with 18 percent in Congo. Rwanda has the second-highest ratio of female entrepreneurs in Africa, behind Ghana with 44 percent, according to the World Bank.
At the same time, Rwanda has engineered a surprisingly fast economic recovery. After falling into destruction in 1994, with many farms and businesses deserted, damaged or destroyed, Rwanda’s economy has since tripled in size and has grown at an average rate of 6 percent since 2004.
Michel Murindahabi, Ndego coffee producer’s executive director, said that male coffee growers in the cooperative have been too rigid in their ways. “They keep saying, ‘We’ve done it our way all our lives, our fathers and grandfathers have done it this way, so why should I change and use your way to grow coffee now?’.”
He said: “The women are different. They have not done it before, so they are adapting and growing the better-quality coffee. That also means they are making more money than the men.”
Abena Mukamana is a case in point. Now employing six workers, she is producing four times as much coffee as her father and husband did. They sold their poorer-quality beans for local consumption. Her finer grade is largely for export, roasted overseas and sold in coffee shops and specialty stores around the world.
“I’m proud of this,” says Mukamana. “I would never have thought I would be in a situation like this.” Her total family income is five times what it was then — income she has used to improve family life. She renovated the family home, a modest space of plain cement walls.
“I think that now, boys and girls are different than they were,” said Patrick Shema, a junior in high school. “Today, women are in business; before, if a woman had some money, she would have to give it to the man. They could not compete against a man. But now, they are competing and doing better.”
Perhaps more important for Mukamana, a woman who was only educated through primary school, is that Alice Mukakalisa, 19, and her oldest female charge, is set to graduate from high school this year. Mukamana has promised to pay for her higher education where Alice hopes to become an accountant.
Nevertheless, by Western standards, women still have a long way to go in Rwanda. Many of the women in Ndego, whose husbands are alive, are culturally expected to ask their permission before engaging in any form of business. But some of the women who have inherited land from genocide victims have been able to use profits from farming or renting that land to gain a measure of financial independence.
By all accounts, initiatives by Rwanda’s women are providing great encouragement to “women from other parts of Africa, (who) are taking on more and more leadership,” says Dr. Karambu Ringera, the founder of International Peace Initiatives, a global network of individuals and organizations seeking innovative and sustainable methods of overcoming the devastation of disease, conflict, and poverty in the world today through education, enterprise and empowerment.
* Hope Mbabazi is a Rwandan journalist.