Friday, 4 November 2016

Kigali and Gender Equality

It’s another endlessly hot week here in Kigali. Rwanda and the UK have few geographical similarities, but I have observed that it is very socially acceptable to discuss the weather with acquaintances. I’ve heard this is the rainy season, but it has in fact rained less than a UK summer -to say it is very rainy in the UK is an understatement, if you have never experienced one of these before- and it’s over 30 degrees every day. I clearly have yet to acclimatise. The in-country volunteers seem to find it very amusing and laugh as they watch us hastily layer on the sun cream as a ritual every morning in the office. I made the mistake of putting suncream on my face in public last week. I did not realise this was a mistake until my panicked counterpart, Emmanuel, informed me I needed to stop my behaviour immediately as I was gathering a small staring crowd of locals.

I’ve never written a blog post before and I thought I would start with a topic that we covered in the group reflection session. I decided to start with gender equality in Rwanda under it’s current political climate. It turned out to be an extremely complex issue. Women and children were systematically targeted in the genocide just over 20 years ago, which horrifically included the use of infection of HIV and AIDs as a weapon. When this is taken into account, I do not think it wrong to assume that from a political perspective, women would be underrepresented.

After doing some research, it became clear that this was simply not the case in the parliament in Rwanda. Over 64% of seats in parliament are held by women. Simply for contrast, only 30% of seats in the UK are held by women; in the US there are even fewer, with only 19% of seats held by women. There are countless articles on the internet on lessons that western gender equality should learn from Rwanda (mostly from the Guardian). It would seem that Rwandan politics is setting a new world standard for equality, with President Paul Kagame at the forefront of his own “he for she” movement. Kagame rejects that gender equality in Rwanda should play catch up with western feminism and he wants to go above and beyond their standard. However, this does not seem to be always the case. Even the women that make up the majority parliament members do not feel that equality affects their daily life. They are often forced to conform to traditional gender roles in their homes, feeling “trapped” into doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning and even ritually polishing their husbands’ shoes.

This left me wondering why then, if women are the majority in politics, does feminism not translate into the lives of ordinary women, let alone the lives of the female government members?

One Rwandan women's rights campaigner has described the female parliamentarians in Rwanda as like a "lovely vase of flowers in a living room" – decorative but not a huge amount of use. There are also concerns about domestic violence. Rwanda’s government reported that two in five women reported suffering physical violence at least once since the age of 15.

It is these facts which makes me realise how imperative it is that we communicate to the children at AMU that boys and girls are equal. We do this by encouraging them to include the girls in games which are heavily dominated by the boys, such as football and rugby. When I visited a school last week one girl asked me where she and her football team could play and I told her she could practice at AMU in the holidays on weekends. This also sets an example to the younger girls who will no doubt watch. It is also particularly salient that girls expand their aspirations to non-traditional female roles, such as parliamentary members. It is important that they know that women in their own country are setting an example for the rest of the world to follow and have pride in this. 

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