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 installed Yoweri Museveni as Uganda’s president, even holding principal positions in the officer corps of what became the Ugandan army. But members of the Rwandan diaspora continued to seek a return to their homeland, founding the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity in 1979 and its successor organization, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, in 1987. Paul Kagame, a Rwandan refugee who had served as an intelligence officer in the Ugandan army, took command of the RPF’s military wing in 1990. When the RPF ended the Rwandan genocide by taking control of Kigali in July 1994, Kagame became the dominant figure in the new regime, serving first as vice president and minister of defense and then as president, a position he still holds. 

Kagame’s tenure as Rwanda’s leader has been highly controversial. Critics accuse him of authoritarian behavior that brooks little internal dissent and of supporting deadly regional meddling. At the same time, the economy has grown by eight percent annually over the last half decade, and Rwanda ranks first (tied with Mali) among 48 African countries in making progress toward achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Corruption is low, life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 58 over the last decade, and infant mortality is dropping rapidly. Paul Farmer of the global health organization Partners in Health contends that he gets more done in Rwanda than anywhere else in the world.

The rising status of Rwandan women is a particular triumph. Half of the country’s 14 Supreme Court justices are women. Boys and girls now attend compulsory primary and secondary school in equal numbers. New, far-reaching laws enable women to own and inherit property and to pass citizenship to their children. Women are now permitted to use their husbands’ assets as collateral for loans, and government-backed funds aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship offer help to women without familial resources. Established businesswomen are leading members of Rwanda’s private-sector elite. And the advance of women in the political sphere has received global attention. In 2000, the country ranked 37th in the world for women’s representation in an elected lower house of parliament. Today, it ranks first.

Most Rwandan officials, including those spearheading the programs, are quick to direct credit to the top of the hierarchy: Kagame tightly controls Rwandan public policy. With dogmatic attention, Kagame has appointed gifted, articulate women to key cabinet positions, personally insisting on a critical mass of women in governance. When I questioned him about why he prioritizes female representation, he harked back to being a 17-year-old activist in exile, organizing for his people’s rights. How, he asked, could he exclude women’s rights? 

Women in the RPF (now the country’s ruling political party) also point out that many of today’s leaders were raised by single mothers in the pre-genocide refugee camps. The hardships these young widows faced as a result of exclusion from their country stayed with their sons who were building the movement. As John Mutamba, an official at the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, told the researcher Elizabeth Powley in 2003, “Men who grew up in exile know the experience of discrimination. Gender is now part of our political thinking. We appreciate all components of our population across all the social divides, because our country has seen what it means to exclude a group.”


The tone Kagame sets works in two ways. He creates an environment that encourages women to pursue their ambitions and gain skills and experience. But also, as the gender equality advocate Dinah Musindarwezo notes, he sends a clear social signal to Rwandans of both genders and all ages about the country’s evolving norms. If Kagame’s championing of women was necessary for their ascension, however, it was but one key factor. Broader structural and social changes were required for his leadership to have an effect. And here, the crisis of the genocide, and the institutional chaos it created, was critical.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, strong women in Rwandan politics were demonized and portrayed as undermining the country’s traditions. Repression and rape became more common. As civil war loomed, extremist cartoons depicted Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a Hutu, as promiscuous and a threat to the nation. According to the anthropologist Christopher Taylor, Uwilingiyimana’s murder on the first day of the genocide owed as much to her being a woman as it did to her being an outspoken member of the political opposition.

A few months later, as génocidaires fled over the border to Congo, Rwanda lay in ruins: churches and schools had become massacre sites, roadsides had become open graves. The survivors faced the tormenting task of rebuilding a country in which every semblance of normalcy had vanished. The RPF government went to work amid piles of corpses, no running water, erratic electricity, and offices looted to the last piece of paper, focusing first on the cleanup and then on reestablishing political structures. The administration had little institutional knowledge to draw on, as most previous officials had fled or been killed and the replacements had minimal governance experience. Before the genocide, for example, Rwanda had some 785 judges. Only 20 survived. And when the Transitional National Assembly was created in November 1994, none of its 74 members and only five of its staff had participated in the prewar parliament.

The government, in short, had the obligation and the opportunity to reconstruct the country’s institutions from top to bottom. Members of the RPF’s executive committee, deployed far and wide, were expected to initiate programs as they saw fit. Capable, trusted women were among the first leadership appointments, including Aloisea Inyumba as minister of gender and family promotion, Rose Kabuye as mayor of Kigali, and Christine Umutoni as deputy minister of rehabilitation and social reintegration.

Women played key roles at the grass-roots level of reconstruction as well, applying their existing proficiencies in new ways: mothering expanded to include caring for homeless children, managing households encompassed supporting widows, cleaning evolved to construction. Facing ruin, many men seemed debilitated, while most women recognized that they had no alternative but action in order to preserve their families and rebuild.

In her 20s, Inyumba had traveled the world raising and managing funds for the RPF in exile. After the war, she designed a massive adoption program for hundreds of thousands of orphans of all ethnicities, contributing to the country’s healing not only by helping its lost children but also by ignoring the Hutu-Tutsi distinction at the level of the nuclear family. Then, from 1999 to 2001, she led the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. After her death from cancer in 2012, her husband recalled her reaction to taking on that challenge. He said that at first, she didn’t know where to start, but she soon realized that she needed to take direction from the people. So she began with a countrywide listening tour, consulting her constituents village by village.

Seven years after the genocide, the country came to grips with its intolerably overpacked prisons, which held more than 600,000 suspects accused of war-related crimes. Drawing on a male-led tradition for mediating local disputes, Rwandans established the gacaca community-based process to try relatively low-level cases. Another strong woman, Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, served as head of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions for a decade. By 2012, nearly two million people had been before these courts, often assembled under a shade tree; that transitional justice process has been key to stabilizing Rwandan society.


For the first two years after the genocide, Rwanda’s adult population was up to 70 percent female, due to the massacre of so many men and the flight of the killers. But women didn’t relinquish their clout even when gender proportions became more balanced over time, as former combatants and exiled populations returned.

Formal institutional changes helped ensure their continuing role. Women held three of 12 seats on the commission that created the country’s new constitution, which was approved by referendum in 2003. Among other gender-equalizing measures, the resulting document established a 30 percent minimum quota for women in offices throughout the government, including Parliament.

A parallel movement occurred at the local level. Pre-genocide village councils had not allowed female participation, so Inyumba oversaw the formation of a separate five-tiered system of women’s councils to address issues such as education, health, and personal security. Gaining credibility from their grass-roots understanding, representatives from these councils have competed for positions at all levels of government, with many going on to higher political office.

In 2003, in the first national election since the genocide, women won 49 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament. And once in office, many who had found their voices at the national level reached back to their rural communities to encourage more women to run for office. The women’s caucus in Parliament then devised a strategic move for the next election: members who had occupied the seats reserved for women used their newfound prominence to contest seats open to all party members, freeing up the women-only seats so that they could be won by a successor cohort of new female politicians. As a result, female representation rose to 56 percent in 2008 -- and to 64 percent after the most recent elections last fall. 

After their election and appointment, moreover, many female officials have maintained links to allies in nongovernmental organizations. Groups such as Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe, Réseau des Femmes, and the Rwanda Women Network play an important role in disseminating information about new laws to a largely illiterate population. Thanks to such coalitions, for example, a landmark 2008 bill on gender-based violence is starting to have an impact. Implementation is a work in progress, but the law provides police forces and hospitals countrywide with specialized professional training and raises public awareness about previously taboo subjects, such as marital rape.

The focus on men’s aggression toward women began soon after the genocide, during which hundreds of thousands of women and girls were sadistically gang-raped or held as sex slaves, and often subsequently mutilated. Activists and academics, backed by international rights groups, demanded that rape be prosecuted as “an act of genocide” at the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It was, and the legal scholar Kelly Dawn Askin called the subsequent 1998 conviction of the local official Jean-Paul Akayesu “the most important decision in the history of women’s jurisprudence.”


“When society requires to be rebuilt, there is no use in attempting to rebuild it on the old plan,” John Stuart Mill once wrote. After its time of horror, Rwandan society did indeed require to be rebuilt, and the country’s new leaders seized the opportunity to scrap the old plan and follow a new one. Over the succeeding generation, they have not only begun to weave together the rent national fabric but also designed a new pattern for it, one in which women can fill the highest roles in all spheres of life.

Laws and policies have been critical steps in this process, but however well intentioned and well crafted, they cannot yield an enduring transformation by themselves. For as Mill also noted, “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” This is why it is crucial that broad-based, informal social norms evolve along with formal institutional structures. Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s minister of foreign affairs, insists that this is indeed what is happening, and that the gains of her country’s women are no longer simply a product of laws and quotas but accepted as part of a permanent cultural shift. The striking ascent of Rwanda’s women over the past 20 years matches that of their country more generally. Future progress cannot be taken for granted, but the example Rwandan women have set is already one for others to emulate.

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  • SWANEE HUNT is Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security.
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