Shrieks of pain erupted at the border check. The police had become infuriated after checking the identification cards of the Tutsi family who were trying to pass through the border to evade the violence erupting in parts of Rwanda. The mother cried out in pain as she shielded her son from the bloody sight unfolding in front of them. This was the first of thousands of incidents in the next bloody three months.
6th April 1994 – only a few hours earlier a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the current Hutu president of Rwanda, was shot down, killing everyone on board. A few hours after the event, violence broke out as Hutu extremists began killing the minority Tutsi residents in the area. The violence got even more extreme. The government, who held hate for the Tutsi ethnic group due to Rwanda’s history, urged neighbours to kill neighbours. People went out holding butches knives and weapons, looking for people to murder. This event is known as the Rwanda genocide, where 800,000 Tutsi minority citizens were murdered because of their ethnicity in only three months.
This is one of the darkest events in the history of Rwanda and many global leaders were criticized for turning a blind eye to the violence that erupted. Before the horrific genocide, tensions and conflict between the two groups, the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi, had risen due to their rigid past being colonized by Belgium during the Imperialism era. This was incredibly heartbreaking and it is extremely important to acknowledge the atrocity of this event. No matter the progress Rwanda has undertaken, the brutality of this Rwandan genocide should be remembered by people worldwide as an example of what hate can do if uncontrolled.
Once the genocide had been overturned by Tutsi rebels, Rwanda’s current president sought a way out of all the destruction. Since then, Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, has made immense progress in turning Rwanda into an economic powerhouse of the African continent and in fighting social issues in the country. Kagame led the rebel forces which helped end the 1994 genocide and he has led the reconstruction of Rwanda since then.
While Kagame has a history of suppressing the opposition and assassinating his rivals, as well as enabling conflict and war between neighbouring African Countries, he has become a champion of women’s rights in Rwanda. The annual 2021 list of Top Ten Countries that have had the most progress towards gender equality has Rwanda charting at number 7. The list was created as part of the Global Gender Report Gap by the World Economic Forum. According to this report, Rwanda has closed around 80.5% of its gender gap to date. This percentage doesn’t mean Rwanda has become one of the world’s best places for a woman – it measures the progress made by that country in closing its gender gap. And Rwanda has made some definite progress.
Rwanda’s parliament is 61% women-led and half of all ministerial government positions in Rwanda belong to women. The country has one of the world’s highest female political participation. Women also hold 86% of the labour force participation and make 88 cents to a man’s dollar – a smaller wage gap than in the United States.
Sexual Violence has also been a big problem in Rwanda but there has been openness by the government in resolving this issue. Safe Schools for Girls, which teaches almost 100,000 students, enables those who come from low socio-economic backgrounds to pursue their education instead of dropping out of school. The organization has partnered up with local schools to teach ideas that would reverse the confines of gender roles.
At one of their schools in a small village outside Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali boys are taught the value of feminism and the dangers of gender-based violence. The students attentively learn how to report domestic abuse cases when they see them happen and how to properly respect the women and girls in their lives. This is a major improvement.
As the #MeToo Movement has taught, we should not teach victims that assault is their fault, instead, we should teach people how to properly respect others’ boundaries and what consent is. In this space, the boys are taught that it is also their responsibility to end the prevalence of sexual violence and that abuse takes on many faces including financial, emotional, and other forms. They learn that it’s important to give support to girls who have been affected by harassment and give them counselling to help them back into society.
While the future horizon is shrouded with hope gender equality isn’t ingrained in Rwandan society. For example, although the workforce is powered by women, a large cause for this female participation is the Rwandan genocide. The genocide killed off many men and left the Rwanda population 60% female. Women had to go to work to provide and care for their children and surviving family members. After the genocide, Kagame thought it was unwise to force women out of the workforce when Rwanda desperately needed to be rebuilt.
Many female parliament members, despite being powerful members of society, have to follow traditional and subservient gender roles at home. Furthermore, in Rwandan culture, the concept of feminism is looked down upon as a ‘Western idea’ which is taking over the traditional culture. The idea that being ‘a good Rwandan woman’ means being patriotic by serving her country but also serving their husbands is still popular.
Many women fear violence at home from their husbands if they fail to do housework. They can feel so trapped that they often contemplate suicide. In many research studies, it is often concluded that mental health is drastically negatively affected in a society that aggressively enforces cultural gender roles. However, as indicated by the progress toward gender equality I mentioned earlier, Rwanda has some of the greatest progress toward gender equality in the world. Their progress surpasses that of countries like the United States and France.
Rwanda has also recently enjoyed strong economic growth rates with the economy growing at 7% a year and its GDP growing at 5% – earning the title of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. This is incredibly impressive as many African countries have some of the highest poverty rates in the world but Rwanda’s progress can spearhead new economic growth.
The government is greatly developing the financial and business sectors, dramatically increasing Rwanda’s rank from 139 to 62 on the annual World Business Report. Rwanda’s government boasts healthy economies like South Korea and Singapore as its heroes for the economic growth it’s trying to attain.
Technological and innovation projects led by a new ambitious generation of young entrepreneurs have sprung up all over Rwanda. Now, the country has become one of Africa’s ‘leading lights’ on communication and technological advancement. For example, they have an incredibly innovative cashless transport system. With a quick tap of a card, Rwandan citizens can board modern public transportation.
Rwandan’s list of achievements goes on: Poverty declined from 77% in 2001 to 55% in 2017, while life expectancy at birth improved from 29 in the mid-1990s to 69 in 2019. One achievement that even the US has not accomplished is Rwanda’s Universal Healthcare. For each Rwandan, Universal Health Coverage (UHC) means that all people have access to the health services they need without financial hardship. It includes the full range of essential health services, and if a needy individual were not able to pay for these services, the government will step in to financially support them.
The story of inspiration only continues to grow. Imagine doctors using their phones to signal for medical supplies and blood donations to be dropped off in a rural area. Once the delivery arrives, the doctors look to see that a drone has done the work. Imagine taking doctor’s appointments over the phone, receiving your prescription via text, and seeking care in an app. Babylon, a world-leading company revolutionizing how we access healthcare, is focused on implementing AI in Rwanda’s healthcare services. Through their efforts, nurses could better assess at-risk patients, arrange follow-up calls with patients, and take note of a patient’s concerning symptoms. All through one-of-a-kind AI technology.
This progress hints at a brighter future ahead. However, much of this progress should not cover up the fact that there are still grave problems. Progress towards women’s rights does not mean that the strict enforcement of gender roles has disappeared. It does lessen the drastic issue of sexual assault, female school drop-out rates, and many other harmful problems in Rwandan society. A speedy turn towards prosperous healthcare and economic system does not mean that Rwandan citizens aren’t dying on the street from hunger, that children have not sacrificed education so they could provide their families with money, or that people aren’t living from paycheck to paycheck. The tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu groups are like a bullet wound held together by a bandage – the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide still linger.
But progression is something to celebrate and be thankful for. Because at the least, another family can put food on the plate, and at least another child can stay in school.
Written by: Zara Jamshed
Important Author’s Note: While I write about the progress of Rwanda, this does not sweep under the rug the country’s dark history and it does not excuse the responsibility of colonial powers and corrupt governments for the events that led to the mass killing. I have purposefully left out dark or triggering details of the Rwandan genocide. I understand the importance of knowing the truth about this event so here are two articles to read more about what occurred during those brutal three months: https://www.history.com/topics/africa/rwandan-genocide