I presented this paper at the Citizenship and the Commonwealth conference held between 10th – 12th November 2010. I cannot seem to insert the footnotes – please let me know in the comments if you would like references.


The aftermath of war and conflict has the potential to radically transform society, acting as a definitive break with the past and a means to reconfigure ideas of gender, citizenship and nationhood. This was especially so in Rwanda in the 1990s. The aftermath of devastating civil war and genocide, waged in large part due to disagreement over the delimitations of citizenship saw the country completely transformed in infrastructure, government and citizenry. Millions were killed, fled the country, returned home from the diaspora or were internally displaced, causing and exacerbating fundamental and profound societal change. The end of hostilities, when society is in flux and creating and strengthening institutions and constitutional culture, can realise the potential that exists to address and redress imbalances, bringing marginalised groups into constitutional and political conversation. The constitutional moment can prevent future conflict: changing the structure of governance may, by including voices rather than relegating grievances to outside the political process, reduce the likelihood of violence. It is a moment of opportunity for women. This time can also exacerbate difference.

The transition focused on remaking a deeply fractured and divided society into a nation, with a corresponding sense of nationhood. Rwanda sought to address ethnic strife and improve the reality of lives for women, utilising the constitution to entrench gender equality provisions and increase female representation in positions of power. Although established norms of proper behaviour persist, Rwanda has the highest rate of female representation in parliament in the world, the government has pledged to remedy traditional exclusion and repression of women and, together with human rights NGOs, is working to transform rhetoric into reality, passing laws reforming inheritance and succession regimes, integrating gender equality into the Constitution, and poised to enact legislation on gender based violence. Significantly, there seems to be general acceptance that Rwandese culture regarding women needs to be transformed. Largely due to advocacy efforts and other actions of Rwandan human rights NGOs, Rwanda has made great strides towards the achievement of gender equality and realisation of women’s rights yet these advances must be viewed in the economic and socio-political context of the nation where the government openly admits the transformation of political culture and ways of thinking to be a prerequisite for the restoration of full human rights. Based on research conducted in the country and interviews with Rwandan and international human rights NGOs on their work, this paper, after examining the contribution of women and women’s organisations to the new polity and to constitutional debate, asserts that the ways that the Rwandan government has incorporated gender equality into a new sense of nation is deeply flawed and aims at furthering its own authoritarian agenda. In a country where government rhetoric of equality of citizenship and break with the past masks growing centralisation of power into the hands of a narrow elite, the instumentalisation of gender equality and women’s participation is very worrying indeed. True citizenship needs to be extended to all those who live in the land.


Patriarchal culture in Rwanda is changing, due to civil society and its parliamentary and government champions, yet these advances must be viewed in socio-political context. Based on research conducted in Rwanda in August and September 2008, this paper argues dramatic change in women’s legal and political status has been accompanied by centralisation of power. Juxtaposing changes in gender roles and political power, the paper traces developments and concludes changes in gender roles are not as revolutionary as at first glance, with attendant implications for the boundaries of citizenship in the polity.

Cockroaches, Temptresses and The Hutu Nation

Rwandans share common language, culture and religion, but identify themselves as radically different, as Hutu and Tutsi. Decades post independence were marked by continuing and virulent campaigns against the Tutsi, depicted as cockroaches to be crushed. The first targeted killings began in 1959 and continued intermittently, causing millions to seek refuge. Raising the spectre of return to subjugation, extremist Hutu advocated annihilation, especially when war broke out with the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) headed by Paul Kagame. The myth of the Hutu nation was instrumental in constructing gender roles. Women, permeable boundaries due to intermarriage and reproduction, became the focus of propaganda. Tutsi women were characterised as working for their ethnicity, enemy infiltrators and deceitful temptresses. Presented as beautiful and desirable yet inaccessible to Hutu men, sexualised images fused ethnic and gender stereotypes, and led to widespread sexual torture to humiliate, degrade and destroy. The first targets of the genocide were female politicians and activists, in part a backlash against recent social and political advances. The interahamwe raped Tutsi and educated Hutu women. Agathe Uwiringiyimana, the first female Prime Minister, was depicted as sexually promiscuous and a national threat. She was one of the first to be raped and killed, targeted because she was an articulate and outspoken woman and prominent in the opposition. Raped, mutilated and impregnated, survivors bear lasting legacies of physical and psychological damage and above all, shame, stigma and social exclusion. Approximately three quarters of inhabitants were killed or displaced in genocidal massacres and war in 1994. The RPF, seen as heroes at the time, are not above reproach. The United Nations estimates soldiers killed between 25,000 and 45,000 people in 1994 and, as of January 2010, only 36 soldiers had been tried.

Women led societal reconstruction, filling a void left by government collapse. Grouping under Pro Femmes Twese Hamwe, organisations lobbied the transitional government to facilitate mechanisms to promote gender equality and encouraged the population to support women. The Ministry of Gender and Promotion of Women’s Development (Migeprofe) established representatives in each prefecture and commune. Women’s committees, running parallel to local authority structures, were set up. Electoral law for the 2001 local elections emphasised women should constitute at least a third of council committee members. In 2002, 25% of National Assembly members, 5 out of 26 ministers and secretaries of state, 2 out of 5 presidents of Supreme Court departments and more than 35% of gacaca judges were female. In the same period, prominent Hutu coalition members resigned, complaining of lack of real power. Consolidation of contro became complete in 2000 when the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, the prime minister and the president resigned and Kagame became the new president.

The Constitutional Commission, including three women out of twelve commissioners, spent six months facilitating discussion in communities before drafting text. Consultation enabled significant input by women’s rights activists. The 2003 Constitution enshrines gender equality in its preamble, sets a 30% female quota for decision making posts and declares political organisations must reflect gender equality in recruitment, operation and leadership. It establishes a bicameral legislature with a Chamber of Deputies that has 24 out of 80 seats reserved for women elected by local councils and women’s organisations and a Senate of 26 members, with at least 30% female representation. However, constitutional provisions are not all progressive. Speech around ethnicity is subject to strict regulation. The Constitution pledges the country to fight genocidal ideology, provides propagation of division is punishable by law, and stipulates political organisations must reflect national unity. The Senate is appointed, not popularly elected, only 53 out of 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are chosen by direct universal suffrage and a Forum of Parliamentarians monitors deputies and senators for divisionism. How these provisions have been used against challengers to power will be discussed later. European Union observers declared there was no referendum campaign, with information disseminated insufficient, imprecise and the government presenting the constitution as the only way to guarantee peace, reconciliation and reconstruction. The constitution was ratified with 90% turnout and 93% approval.

Presidential and parliamentary elections marking the end of transition were held 4 months later. Officials carefully selected candidates, threatening others. Election observers expressed concern at the lack of real opposition, the climate of intimidation and arrests and preponderance of news coverage favourable to the RPF. Moreover, the leadership openly acknowledged transformation of ways of thinking as prerequisite for restoration of full rights: the people will only influence policy once divisions have been banished. The 2003 constitution and elections therefore, far from marking a transition to democracy resulted in RPF power consolidation.

Increasing government restrictions on political space and human rights, growing intolerance of criticism and a refusal to allow discussion of ethnicity mark the years since transition. Legislative elections in September 2008 resulted in RPF candidates winning 79 percent of the vote in voting marked by procedural irregularities, noticeable absence of political debate, reports of intimidation and short-term arrests. Opposition leads to accusations of ‘genocidal ideology,’ a vaguely defined crime established in 2008 but prosecuted before, that does not require intent to incite violence based on ethnicity nor causality. Criticism, including calls for prosecution of RPF war crimes, can be construed as ‘genocidal ideology.’ Political groups and organisations may be disbanded on conviction. A media law passed in August 2009 requires journalists to have levels of education most independents cannot meet. The BBC Kinyarwanda service and Voice of America have both been accused of disseminating genocidal ideology. In April 2010, the Media High Council suspended two of the few remaining independent newspapers, effectively silencing independent reporting before the August 2010 presidential elections. The United Nations, European Union, United States, France and Spain expressed concerns about the human rights situation ahead of the elections. None of the three candidates were believed to be a serious threat to incumbent Paul Kagame but the three opposition parties that have openly criticised policies were not on the ballot. The Democratic Green Party and the FDU Inkingi were unable to register due to arrests, intimidation and attacks and PS Imberakuri was unable to stand after its leader, Bernard Ntaganda was arrested in June and charged with ‘genocidal ideology.’ The members of all three parties were harassed and threatened. In October 2010, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU Inkingi, was re-arrested and Bernard Ntaganda transferred from prison where he has been on hunger strike, to hospital.

Activists have to be careful as margin for manoeuvre is limited. Activities are tolerated only if compatible with government discourse and criticism has led to threats, deaths, injuries and disappearances. Experience has made Rwandan human rights defenders wary of speaking out. Organisations critical of the government are accused of being too political, harbouring genocidal ideas and threatened with dissolution. Leaders of human rights organisations have also been co-opted by the offer of governmental posts that are too dangerous to refuse. An increasingly authoritarian state has led to the expulsion of genocide survivors. Until 2000, through the organisations Ibuka and Avega, they demanded improvement in economic situation and challenged utilisation of the genocide, opposing the display of skulls, bones and corpses at memorials. Ability to agitate for change was neutralised by increasing pressure, with physical attacks and assassinations leading many to flee into exile, to be replaced by leaders with a history of involvement in RPF politics. Organisations are urged to join the Civil Society Platform, whose leadership has close ties to the government. There are very few independent human rights NGOs left in the country. The impact of government’s utilisation of ‘genocidal ideology’ has been to stifle dissent.

Gender Equality in Context

Women head households, have achieved equal parliamentary representation and work in prominent positions. Activists were involved in drafting the Bill on Gender Based Violence as well as laws recognising rights to inherit land and property. These changes, along with equal primary school enrolment and dropping maternal mortality have impact but gendered attitudes have continuing influence. Women tend to hold ‘female jobs’ with low pay. The feminisation of poverty continues. Female literacy is low. Survivors live beside those who assaulted and betrayed them. Justice has been slow. Rates of violence against women are high. De facto polygamy is on the rise. The notion the man is the lord of the manor thrives. Furthermore, gender equality has to be seen in context. Decisions are to be made by consensus between leaders and the enlightened part of the people. Political liberalisation is contingent on changes in population mindset to remove genocidal thinking. Students, demobilised soldiers and returnees from exile are required to spend time at ingando or solidarity camps where ideology is disseminated. Accusations of genocidal ideology and corruption, disappearance of oppositional politics and distribution of positions of responsibility in public and private sectors has concentrated control. Parliament, far from being a check on executive power, enables undemocratic actions. The Forum of Parliamentarians mentioned earlier suffocates full and free debate. President Kagame initiates the majority of legislation and little suggested is altered. Longman characterises the parliament ‘not as a forum for real debate but rather as a tool for legitimising government policies by giving them a veneer of popularity.’

Gender equality gains have to be seen in the context of limited parameters for political debate. The government seems committed to achieving gender equality and this is certainly very useful diplomatically. Rwanda is known and lauded as the nation with the highest number of women in parliament. Multiple motives may lie behind championing of women’s rights. Cynical calculation views this policy as a way of being assured support from the majority female population and parliamentarians and obscuring lack of competitive democracy and on-going human rights violations in the eyes of the international community. Perceptions crediting President Kagame for changes for women in Rwanda heighten loyalty among women who make up the majority of voters and attribute their promotion at all levels to the President. Women may be being used to legitimise governmental power and consolidate Kagame’s power base. Furthermore, female parliamentarians and women’s organisations can only push forward a pro women agenda in so far as this is amenable to the leadership. The passage of the 2008 gacaca law exemplifies this. The gacaca, community fora used for guilt/ innocence determinations for genocidal crimes, were given jurisdiction over rape, raising fears of survivors suffering stigma and ridicule once experiences of sexual violence became known and of justice not being done. By the time most NGOs knew about the legislation, it had been adopted. All activists interviewed stated surprise at speed of passage and lack of consultation given the sensitive nature of changes proposed and expressed reservations. The lack of political freedom limits ability to influence policy. Rwanda is essentially a one party state. According to Kenneth Roth, ‘under the guise of preventing another genocide the government displays a marked intolerance of the most basic forms of dissent.’ Emphasising the international community did nothing to prevent the genocide has manipulated international guilt into strong support for the RPF with institutional and government donors giving latitude for actions.


The status of women, traditionally characterised as virtuous wives, virginal daughters or loose women who controlled resources through links with men, has profoundly changed. However, Rwanda is not as much a gender success story as it seems. Much of it is a façade of power that remains as long as women operate within circumscribed space. Real power remains in the hands of a small coterie surrounding the president. This much is evident from the repercussions for those who dare to criticise the government, the marginalisation of women’s organisations from discussions surrounding the 2008 gacaca law and sidelining of survivors’ needs and experiences, particularly distasteful given the genocide has become politicised in internal and external discourse to justify and legitimise actions.

Around the world, the 2008 election results were celebrated. With 56.25 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, one country in the world finally seemed to recognise women as equal citizens. It was hoped equal representation would mean the scope of political debate would shift to reflect women’s concerns and the reality of women’s lives. A more nuanced approach, one that looks at political and societal reality, is needed. Gender statistics and the horror of the genocide are being instrumentalised to cloak what is really happening. Human rights to freedom of speech, assembly, press and from torture are as relevant for women as they are for men. Meaningful, not tokenistic participation is the goal. In a country where full and active citizenship is restricted to the enlightened, those who do not challenge government discourse, cause for celebration is muted indeed.