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Opinion | Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Swanee Hunt

In the aftermath of genocide, Rwanda’s women have transformed the country

A woman carrying her child looked at the wall of victims' names as Rwanda marked the 25th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.
A woman carrying her child looked at the wall of victims' names as Rwanda marked the 25th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago, a savage genocide ripped apart Rwanda, a tiny nation in the heart of Africa.

This month’s observance of the genocide that killed almost a million focused, as it should have, on those who lost their lives in the carnage. But few know of the pioneering role of Rwanda’s women, who stepped forward into an unimaginable crisis, then drove a sustained recovery that has set an example for the world.

Hundreds of thousands of children and women were among an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi plus moderate Hutus, who were slaughtered in 100 days of bloodshed that began on April 7. But few know that when the fighting ended, many surviving men were left emotionally numb and unable to act. It was the women who buried the dead — then took on leadership roles, for the first time, in a society that had kept them subservient and virtually silent.

For the last quarter-century, the two of us have been able to listen to their stories — with awe.

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The nation’s transformation has come through women’s leadership, which is obvious in the highest ranks of the judiciary, as well as many of the most important departments of the executive branch. The support of President Paul Kagame and his influential wife, Jeannette, has been essential. But it’s clear from the women with whom we’ve talked that the Kagame involvement does not stand alone.

• Women now hold 61 percent of the seats in Parliament — according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union — by far the largest proportion in the world. That feat is the result of their conscious campaign to open paths for themselves and their sisters to take positions of authority, from village councils to provincial governments, and on up to the highest legislative body. The 2003 constitution requires that women hold at least 30 percent of seats in all government structures. But in most fields they have far outstripped that quota, and they have made sure that there is a pipeline of emerging female political figures.

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• This power has translated into new business opportunities for women. Parliament enacted an inheritance law, in 1999, giving women the right to own property. With subsequent collateral, their small businesses have helped fuel the country’s unprecedented economic renaissance. The road is not smooth, especially as women face cultural biases assuming that business is a male sphere. Still, there are many like Berthilde Niyibaho, mushroom farmer and mentor par excellence, who has trained thousands to convert their backyards into small farms, then sell their harvest back to her Mushroom Village.

• Education reform has emphasized opportunities for young women. One example: The Akilah Institute is the nation’s first all-female college, bringing along impressive graduates like genocide survivor Nadine Niyitegeka, who has moved from a supermarket job with only a dream of higher education to working on development and recruitment for the institute. Another: the Maranyundo Girls School , located on the former site of a concentration camp, attracts international attention for creating a generation of future female scholars, many studying science and technology.

Representatives to the United States and United Nations are arguably any country’s top diplomatic posts, and both are currently filled by women. Ambassador to the UN Valentine Rugwabiza explains women’s key role in her country’s stunning economic progress: “We know that just to free the potential for women is the fastest multiplier we have for growth . . . an accelerator in eradicating poverty.”

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This has translated into women achieving 88 percent participation in the Rwandan labor force, the same percentage as men; that puts Rwanda at number one in the World Economic Forum ranking for gender equality in the workplace. Overall, Rwanda ranks sixth in the forum’s global gender-gap score, which measures education, health, economic, and political empowerment. Those are among the strongest figures anywhere, whether in Africa or the developed world.

So yes, the world needs to reflect on the immense failures, national and international, that led to Rwanda’s plunge into unfathomable fratricidal ruination, with so many innocent victims. And it’s appropriate to ponder the costs of the current, heavy-handed policies of the Rwandan government, which its leaders argue are essential for stability.

But the untold story is the meteoric rise of the country’s women. Let’s celebrate the monumental breakthroughs they have achieved. Countries across the world, and indeed, we each as global citizens, have much to learn from these courageous and innovative leaders.


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the former president of Libera. Former US ambassador Swanee Hunt is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Rwandan Women Rising.”