The New York Times
February 26, 2005 Saturday
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 3; Foreign Desk; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 1577 words
HEADLINE: Women's Voices Rise as Rwanda Reinvents Itself
DATELINE: KIGALI, Rwanda, Feb. 23
   The most remarkable thing about Rwanda's Parliament is not the war-damaged
building that houses it, with its bullet holes and huge artillery gashes still
visible a decade after the end of the fighting.
     It is inside the hilltop structure, from the spectator seats of the lower
house, that one sees a most unusual sight for this part of the world: mixed in
with all the dark-suited male legislators are many, many women -- a greater
percentage than in any other parliamentary body in the world.
     A decade after a killing frenzy left this tiny Central Africa country in
ruins, Rwanda is reinventing itself in some surprising ways.
     Women make up 48.8 percent of seats in the lower house of Parliament, a
higher percentage than in the legislative bodies in countries like Sweden,
Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, known for their progressive policies.
     The rise of women stems in part from government initiatives aimed at
propelling them to the upper ranks of politics. But their numbers do not
necessarily add up to influence.
     They are more a reflection of the demographics and disillusionment spawned
by the killing spree that left 800,000 or more people dead, though some
lawmakers are trying to use their new place in government to enhance the lot of
women in what remains a deeply patriarchal land.
     ''Before the genocide, women always figured their husbands would take care
of them,'' said Aurea Kayiganwa, the coordinator of Avega, a national
organization representing Rwanda's many war widows. ''But the genocide changed
all that. It forced women to get active, to take care of themselves. So many of
the men were gone.''
     At the end of the ethnic warfare of the 1990's, women greatly outnumbered
men -- some estimate the ratio as 7 to 1 -- a result of the wanton killing of so
many men and the escape of so many others involved in the carnage. During the
rebuilding of the country, then, women's anguished voices were difficult not to
hear, and they became what was seen as a powerful and credible force for
     ''I used to see politics as something bad,'' said Athanasie Gahondogo, a
member of Parliament and executive secretary of the Forum for Rwandan Women
Parliamentarians. ''It's what caused our problems and made me a refugee for so
long. But now I want to have a seat at the table.''
     Women were a tiny percentage of those jailed for taking part in the strife
between the Tutsi, who make up about 15 percent of the population, and the Hutu,
who represent nearly all of the rest. One study put the portion of women
involved at just 2.3 percent.
     A minister of family and women's affairs in the old government, Pauline
Nyiramasuhukon, is on trial on genocide charges at the International Criminal
Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, but the heinous charges attributed to her,
including inciting others to rape Tutsi women, are considered by many here to be
an aberration when it comes to women.
     ''There's a widespread perception in Rwanda that women are better at
reconciliation and forgiveness,'' said Elizabeth Powley, who has studied Rwandan
women's political rise for Women Waging Peace, an organization based in
Cambridge, Mass. ''Giving them such prominence is partly an effort at conflict
     During the drafting of the country's new postwar Constitution, 30 percent
of the seats in the two house of Parliament were designated for women. But an
unexpected thing happened in October 2003 when voters went to the polls to elect
a Parliament for the first time since the war. They chose even more women than
many male politicians expected.
     ''Some men even complained that women were taking some of the 'men' seats,'
' said Donnah Kamashazi, a representative in Rwanda for the United Nations
Development Fund for Women.
     Six of the 20 seats in the Senate are held by women, meeting the 30 percent
set aside. But in the lower house, which has 80 seats, women won 39, 15 more
than the number reserved for them. Taken together, women make up 45 percent of
the two chambers, just below the 45.3 percent in Sweden's single-chamber
     The political representation of Rwandan women is not limited to the
legislative arena. There is a female chief justice of the Supreme Court, several
female cabinet members, a female head of the influential National Unity and
Reconciliation Commission and a female deputy police chief, to name but a few of
the prominent women in Rwanda's political world.
     All that said, women continue to suffer profoundly in today's Rwanda. ''I
try to forget what happened in 1994,'' said one of the suffering ones, Cecille
Mukampabuka, 64, whose leg was shattered and who lost much of her family back
then. ''I would go mad if I didn't try to forget. But I can't ever forget. It's
not over yet for me. I'm still suffering.''
     Rwanda remains a male-dominated land, far more than the gendersensitive
numbers would suggest.
     Patriarchal traditions remain strong in the home, where experts say women
continue to suffer from spousal abuse and where the notion that the man is the
lord of the manor thrives. A female senator disclosed to colleagues recently
that she still deferred to her husband during official functions in her home so
as not to question his supremacy there.
     And the uppermost reaches of government remain the preserves of men. In
Rwanda, President Paul Kagame, the former rebel leader whose forces quelled the
mass killing of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in 1994, holds a firm grip on power, and
loyalty to him remains a prerequisite for political survival, no matter one's
     Criticism of any aspect of governing in Rwanda, including the country's
promotion of women, is done at one's own risk.
     Recently, when the head of a women's organization questioned the
effectiveness of the country's female legislators in solving women's problems
and likened them to flowers, which look good but do little else, she was
condemned and threatened. Shortly afterward, she fled the country.
     ''It was bad research,'' complained Odette Nyiramirimo, an influential
senator and former cabinet minister. ''She was calling the women stupid. She
used the word flower to describe them. I think she was wrong.''
     Ms. Nyiramirimo and other women in politics here acknowledge that
Parliament does not play an overly confrontation role with the executive branch,
an outgrowth, they say, of the divisive politics of the country's past. Only a
handful of pieces of legislation have originated in Parliament in recent years,
for instance, and little if anything that Mr. Kagame suggests is rejected, or
even substantially altered, before adoption.
     Women also agree that it has taken some time for the female legislators to
get their feet wet in politics. During a recent afternoon of political debate,
it was clear that the proceedings were being dominated by men.
     But women are making inroads. Legislation passed in 1999, before the
current influx of women, liberalized the rules restricting inheritance for
women, which were a major force in keeping women poor. Penalties for child
rapists have been toughened, an outgrowth of the brutal treatment that women and
girls suffered in 1994.
     ''Men are watching us,'' Ms. Nyiramirimo said. ''They wonder if we'll rise
up to a higher level. We're learning fast, because we have to. We say to each
other that we can't be as good as the men -- we have to be better.''
     Ms. Nyiramirimo said the true test of women's success would be how much
they changed the lives of rural women, those who do not tool around the capital
in chauffeur-driven vehicles and do not spend their time debating the issues of
the day.
     ''Women in leadership are doing the little they can, but the problems are
as big as the sea,'' said Mrs. Kamashazi of the United Nations Development Fund
for Women. ''Sometimes you just say, 'Oh, my goodness.'''
     Rwanda remains a desperately poor country, where social indicators like
life expectancy, child mortality and literacy lag significantly behind most of
the world. Much of the day-to-day toil falls squarely on the shoulders of the
nation's war-weary women.
     ''I grew up in a rural area, and every morning before school I had to get
up early and fetch water at the river,'' Ms. Nyiramirimo recalled. ''It was so
painful to balance it on your head. Every time I go to my village I see girls
and women still doing it.''
     One initiative she hopes to push her colleagues to adopt is a program to
import donkeys, which are common in other parts of Africa but rather rare here.
They would be bred and then distributed to villages to help relieve the loads
women must bear.
     Talk of putting 1994 in the past is difficult for many women across Rwanda,
who find themselves poor and alone, or who suffer from AIDS contracted during a
violent rape then, or who are now raising many children who are not their own
but who were orphaned in the killing spree.
     One of them is Winfred Mukagirhana, 46, who was raped repeatedly in 1994
and like so many other Rwandan women is now dying of AIDS. She lost her husband
and four of her five children in 1994. Her lone surviving boy, who was 12 back
then, is now an emotionally disturbed young man who cannot get the brutal
attacks that he witnessed out of his head.
     ''What can the government do for me?'' she asked, saying she could not feel
much satisfaction from the statistics on women's progress that have put Rwanda
so high compared with other countries in the world. ''My life is over. I'm
almost dead.''
GRAPHIC: Photos: Odette Nyiramirimo is head of the Senate social affairs and
human rights committee. ''We're learning fast,'' she said, ''because we have to.
Aurea Kayiganwa, the coordinator of Avega, a national organization representing
Rwanda's many war widows, in her office in the capital. (Photographs by
Guillaume Bonn for The New York Times)(pg. A6)Chart: ''Women Leaders''Rwanda has
the highest percentage of women in the lower house of Parliament. But the
percentages of women in government worldwide remain lower than in the adult
populations.RANK: 1. RwandaPCT. OF WOMEN AGES 15-64: 54.4PCT. OF WOMEN IN LOWER
14.9(Sources by Inter-Parliamentary Union
 World Bank, 2003 population)(pg. A6)
LOAD-DATE: February 26, 2005