The Rise of Rwanda’s Women

Rebuilding and Reuniting a Nation

Rwandans line up to take part in a women-only vote for the National Women's Council in Kigali, July 12, 2004. Finbarr O'Reilly / Courtesy Reuters

Twenty years ago, in 100 days of slaughter between April and July 1994, an estimated one million Rwandan men, women, and children were killed by their fellow citizens. It was one of the worst genocides in history, and its effects still ripple through Rwanda, central and eastern Africa, and the world at large.

It would be obscene to say that such a catastrophe has had even the thinnest silver lining. But it did create a natural -- or unnatural -- experiment, as the country’s social, economic, and political institutions were wiped out by the genocide. And in important respects, the reconstructed Rwanda that emerged over the next two decades is a dramatically different country.

One major improvement has come in the leadership of Rwandan women, who have made history with their newly vital role in politics and civil society. No longer confined to positions of influence in the home, they have become a force from the smallest village council to the highest echelons of national government. Understanding how and why such a transformation occurred offers not just an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments. It also provides lessons for other countries struggling to overcome histories of patriarchy and oppression. 


Rwanda’s catastrophe was the nadir of decades of violence and prejudice. People in the area had traditionally drawn distinctions among themselves based on socioeconomic status and occupation, but Belgian colonists treated the differences as immutable ethnic characteristics and issued national identification cards accordingly. A perilous imbalance of opportunity and institutionalized exclusion followed, initially privileging the area’s Tutsi minority and causing deep resentment among the Hutu majority. When the Hutus eventually came to power, they reversed the dynamic. Pogroms and fierce discrimination throughout the late 1950s and through to the mid-1970s caused an exodus of Tutsis to neighboring countries, with a large portion of the exiled population ending up in Uganda.

Fighting for a more secure place in their adopted home, many of these Rwandan exiles joined the 1980s rebellion that eventually

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