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Women in Rwanda: Beyond their High Representation in Government

Judithe Registre, the Director of Development and Outreach at Women for Women International, is currently traveling in Rwanda. This if the second in a series of posts about her experiences.
           In my last entry, I highlighted Rwanda’s incredible economic growth and the country’s vital commitment to women. Advancements in women’s value and presence in society, particularly the government, serve as optimistic indicators that Rwandans are fully committed to women. An estimated 56% of the Parliament and one-third of the cabinet are now dominated by women. The statistics are impressive and historically unprecedented in Rwanda. However, the statistics do not tell the full story of Rwandan women. The Rwanda Women’s Parliamentarian Forum recently declared that gender bias, particularly in poverty, remains a prominent issue. As one female, Rwandan Senator noted at dinner last night, the country is aware there is still a long journey in achieving full success in improving women’s status. Most statistics of Rwanda’s development shirk the majority of women who remain trapped in a cycle of poverty, obstructed from stability and basic human rights.
            Despite an annual growth of nearly 6%, Rwanda continues to wrestle with poverty. Rwanda is infected with the economic disparity plaguing most countries: a large gap divides the elite minority with the destitute majority. The richest 10% of the population holds approximately 50% of the national wealth, compared to 50% of the population sharing just 10% of the wealth. Poverty predominantly thrives in rural Rwanda: 66% of the population compared to a mere 12% in urban Kigali.
            Among the rural, financially- depleted, women and children find themselves in the unfortunate majority. Sixty-two percent of households headed by women lie below the poverty line, compared to 54% of male households. Impoverished women are vulnerable to discrimination and traditional, gender-biased mentalities. A vicious cycle of inadequate health care, scant education and unawareness of legal rights derives from financial instability. It is imperative then, to pull these women from the rut of poverty, and make them the focus of Rwanda’s economic advancement.
           The impoverished living environment for women is a direct consequence of the genocide. Women encompass the majority of rural poverty and isolated suffering. The horror left over 250,000 raped and deliberately infected with HIV/AIDS. As the conflict eased, women found themselves alone: unmarried, widowed, or wives of prisoners. This situation left Rwandan women as the heads of most households and living in extreme poverty and despair. Women’s mental and emotional health crumbled beneath the severe trauma and violence. Today, many Rwandans believe the suffering will dissipate as the country continues to grow. Because of this popular mentality, the nation’s development priorities neglect the daunting responsibility to provide its people, especially women, with the necessary therapy and medical resources to recover. Even with steady growth, however, it may require two or three generations until the horrors begin to fade into history. Meanwhile, Rwandan women are drowning in a whirlpool of social-economic disadvantages.
            Poverty and gender inequality are strongly correlated. The Rwandan Government realizes this connection and, in 2002, integrated gender equality into its Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP)[1]. The national poverty reduction plan includes a subcommittee on engendering and also a representative from the Ministry of Gender and Promotion of Women. The government acknowledges the two issues must be solved simultaneously to successfully pull Rwandan women from their economic status.
            If the nation prioritizes the improvement of women among poverty, the national financial well-being of the entire country will also improve.
           Women for Women International operates in war-torn countries, striving to pull impoverished women from the shadows. The programs primarily target women, because as evident in countries like Rwanda, they are the most vulnerable and socially excluded. We believe in the innate capabilities of women and provide them with the resources and tools to discover and access these capabilities. The trauma and isolation often inflicted on women strips their self-confidence and motivation. It is our privilege to empower these women and help them recover to their fierce, ambitious selves.
           Our program aims to educate women in all aspects of life, ultimately providing participants with four ideal outcomes. First, upon graduation, the women are well. They are practicing a healthy lifestyle and fully educated in sexual reproduction. Second, the women are decision-makers. Participants have been educated in their legal rights and have increased confidence in voicing their opinions in both society and families. Third, the women sustain a steady income. Our program provides an education for entrepreneurship and group investments, allowing women the freedom to choose the path most comfortable for them. It is imperative, regardless of which path they choose, that women establish themselves financially. Finally, the women will have created social networks and safety nets throughout the training process. Support systems and familial bonds, once destroyed by rampant warfare, are restored and enforced. Women for Women creates a program and environment that attacks poverty at its core. Nutritional and financial needs are addressed, as well as the sense of mental and physical isolation.
             Poverty is not blind to gender, but women are often the prominent victims. Gender-bias in poverty obstructs women from obtaining the exposure, education, and health services necessary for their progress. Programs, like Women for Women, are imperative in targeting women to provide necessary resources and knowledge for a promising future. Women who previously earned less than $1 a day are now earning an average of $9 a day upon graduation. This serves as a reminder that investment in the right approach and full dedication to that approach can create infinite opportunities. We must continue to extend our activism and aid them. Addressing women’s poverty and well -being is the key to this nation’s better bill of health.
[1] Zuckerman, Elaine. “Engendering Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans: The Issues and Challenges.” Gender and Development 10.3 (2002): 88-94. Print.

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Kigali, Rwanda, is Leading Today’s African Renaissance

Judithe Registre, the Director of Development and Outreach at Women for Women International, is currently traveling in Rwanda. This if the first in a series of posts about her experiences. 

 

            I have been coming to Rwanda since 2001. I feel privileged and honored each year I come and witness the changes taking place. While the continent as a whole has witnessed many changes, Rwanda perhaps displays the most tangible evidence of these changes. I am continually moved and astounded to see such visible progress. Many of the roads, homes, and office buildings now in place are less than five years old. The pace and speed of progress is clear evidence that anything is possible when one is willing to move forward positively. Indeed, with strong leadership, much that is dreamed can be achieved.
            I am in Rwanda for the next two weeks, leading two groups of donors who support our program in Rwanda. They are here to see the impact of their investments on the lives of the women we serve.  I am excited to be here, since I no longer work in the field as I once did. I am also excited, because I am always inspired when I meet the women whom we serve. I feel blessed to do this work and help women realize, own, and harness their personal power to transform the lives of not only themselves, but of their families and communities.
            Each time I venture into the field, I am moved by what these women are able to achieve with the limited resources they have. The women in our programs have taught me the meaning of possibility, hope, and optimism. Being here is always a strong reminder of my personal blessings and the remarkable opportunity I have doing this work. My visits to Rwanda also always offer amazing lessons in development, post- conflict rebuilding, and leadership.
            Understanding the role of history in who we are and who we are becoming is the important ingredient for nation-building. The development boom and recent progress in Rwanda is one of the past decade’s most important, yet least recognized, stories emerging from Africa. This country has moved forward from a grim past, sadly marked by ethnic hatred and severe violence. During that time, the country’s prospects for brighter years seemed to be extinct. Yet seventeen years after the horrific genocide, Rwanda is rejuvenating a disheveled morale and standing stronger and brighter. The country is nurturing optimism, pushing advancement, and redefining new standards for post-conflict development. Rwanda is the leader of what I will call an African Renaissance.
             The progress and development thus far in Rwanda sets new standards for change and development across the continent.  After the total destruction of its underdeveloped economy and limited infrastructures, one would have to declare what is happening now to be nothing less than a miracle. In actuality, it is not just a miracle; it is also a lesson in personal and community leadership and determination.  While an arduous journey still lies ahead, Rwanda continues to revive its enthusiasm for change and innovation.  The country demonstrates that it is not only the voice of one person that is most inspiring, but the collective voices and stories of many that will inspire us to change.
             When I travel to the African continent and experience the struggles of different countries, I am reminded of the African concept known as Ubuntu. As articulated by Nelson Mandela, Ubuntu “is the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will be in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”[1]Others will inspire us as we inspire them and are willing to be inspired by them. Courage and determination are choices we all must make, individually or collectively.
               From a physical perspective, I see this East African country is pursuing numerous cosmetic changes. Prominent hotel complexes, such as the Marriott and Radisson, are being built in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Seemingly infinite road projects are evidence of the extensive infrastructure repair. The country has won praise at the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit and in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report, both of which note its incredible road towards progress. Rwanda is working to bring full prosperity to its people, but it is not yet there.  Despite annual economic growth of nearly 7% the last five years[2], Rwanda still ranks 195th out of 213 countries on the World Bank’s most recent per capita income survey[3].Despite the such high level of economic growth the majority of people are still very poor. For instance, over  60% of the population live in poverty and over 40% in absolute poverty. Poverty remains an ongoing challenge. Still, I see the signs everywhere– signs that the country is on the right path.
From a more profound perspective, Rwanda is also displaying unprecedented advancements in the value it places on women. It amazes me that this gender, whose bodies were once used as battlegrounds during the genocide, can today proudly reclaim its voice and confidence. Women are now valued in politics, the social structure, economics and grass roots organizations. Society hopes to assuage the previous terrors inflicted by mostly violent men. The Rwandan Parliament is the first in Africa with a majority female population and also led by a female, Rose Mukantabana, the Speaker of the Parliament.
            In a country that once restricted women from making profits or opening bank accounts, programs like ours now empower Rwandan woman economically and financially. I am proud to be one voice in a community of many that encourage and assist these women with microcredit loans and training in business, agriculture and agribusiness. The success of our program is accredited to the determination of the women, but also to a new, enabling environment facilitating growth and progress for women. These environments instill hope and value in all women, promoting their necessary involvement to sustain a working society.
            Rwanda’s strides and improvements are astounding. This financially and economically thriving country defies all the prior post-genocide speculations and concerns. There is certainly a need for persistence in current improvements, but still Rwanda serves as a prominent example for its African peers. This progress indirectly asks for similar standards from its neighbors in achieving infrastructure reform, women’s rights, and economic potential. Rwanda challenges its peers to follow its lead. It demands paralleled rejuvenation, so as to create a true Africanrenaissance for the entire continent.
The aspiration to bring prosperity to Rwanda by transforming its economy rests on the belief that extreme poverty contributed to the 1994 genocide. We know all too well about the abuse of African youth and other third-world children to fight conflicts, largely due to their lack of opportunities. The youth need jobs and education.  The change cannot merely serve as a campaign slogan for politicians. It has to be real. I adamantly believe it has to be a change the people are fully invested in creating. We know that when a certain level of economic well- being is enjoyed by the population as a whole, tolerance and peaceful co-existence will increase. The sense of optimism that progress brings can fundamentally rebuild economies and nations, even those emerging from war and conflict. Many of us will often think a goal is impossible until it is achieved.  Rwanda is replacing this doubt with optimism by providing a new model for what is possible.
            I am a pragmatic optimist.  I am blessed to witness women emerging from extreme atrocities, trauma and great darkness to find hope, light, and create a new life for themselves. These women succeed in conditions where one would think nothing positive is possible. I am hopeful today, for I have been shown the full capacity of the human spirit to recreate the positive in the midst of nothingness. I am blessed and excited to not only see Rwanda, but to be reminded by the women that we serve of the possibilities when all are committed to moving forward. We can become a prominent example, as Rwanda is becoming, and seek a revival of African development that will produce a full African Renaissance. In a recent article, the Harvard Business Review noted that “the [African] continent is among the fastest expanding economic regions today.”[4]  Rwanda is certainly  leading the way with its value of women as important, even necessary, players in that process.

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My Journey Back to the DRC by Judithe Registre

It is strange being back in Eastern DRC. Indeed, it has been well over a year since I last visited our program sites in Bukavu and Goma. Being back feels strange—how little things have changed and yet how much things have changed. What is it that has changed and what has not? An element that has not changed appreciably is represented by the internally displaced camps located outside of Goma. The IDP and refugee camps are not easy places to visit. In fact, I am not feeling just one emotion; rather, I am twisted. I visited these IDP camps in 2007, which was the last time I was in Congo. As I see the people in the camps struggling to achieve the dignified life that these camps cannot provide, I am left with a bleeding heart. Why is it that we must have such state of pain and suffering, when it can be so easily prevented? It is hard for me to witness these conditions knowing that something can certainly be done—we live in a world that has the potential to end these types of injustice and atrocities.

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What has changed are some of the women I met the last time I was here. Many of them were new in the program. A few of these women have become trainers of other women in the program. Thus, here I am with women who are striving for change in order to improve the lives of their families and ensure the next generation of Congolese escapes the fate that is outlined by the unthinkable sociopolitical reality that has marked the underdevelopment of Congo from inception to date. I am completely amazed at the development that is taking place among the women we served; the changes, how they are making hope a tangible reality.

As I stand somewhere between optimism and despair, I am reminded constantly that I am the same as the women in the program; I am them, they are me. As I encounter their humanity, I see mine as well as the humanity that exists globally. My heart is strong—but not strong enough in the midst of such suffering. My heart bleeds and it cries as I hear the retelling of the story about a young woman who was raped by 17 men. The total destruction of her internal organs has rendered her genderless.

I am enraged by the lack of acknowledgement for the unnecessary suffering that fails to recognize the humanity in the face of this young woman as well as in the faces of the women I meet and see, or the elderly and the children I encounter in these camps. While my heart cries out as I experience the inhumane conditions with which these people are faced as they struggle to survive and live a rewarding life, my tears are wiped away by the hope I see in the faces of the women when they walk into the Women for Women training center. As well, my trust in humanity is renewed—as it has been countless times when I meet the women we served—seeing the confidence in their movements as they walk into the compound and watching how lively they become at the prospect of gaining skills and acquiring new knowledge. How engaging there are; how eager they are eager to share their stories with each other and to share their knowledge with others. They are eager to give advice to one another about the need to be strong and remain active in these trying times.

While there is a tremendous amount of suffering and injustice occurring in this corner of the world, there is still astonishing hope to be found in Eastern Congo. This is not the kind of hope that lies dormant; rather, it is the type that is active. It is not the kind of hope that prompts people to ask for pity or charity; instead, it is the kind that prompts them to seek skills and training. Clearly, this is not the kind of hope that compels people to ask for handouts. Quite differently, it is the kind of hope that prompts them to ask—always courteously—for a hand up. What a delight it is to see this tangible hope in a place where few people can see the light.  Being in the Congo again has been deeply painful for me as my heart is too sensitive to bear witness to injustice of any kind. Still, my heart delights as I realize how we as an institution continue to make hope a reality for so many deserving people. This is the reality that I see, smell, touch, and feel. I can see it with each smile on the faces of women and children as they participate in our training.  Simply to be able to witness this expression is a reward in itself. It is indeed a privilege and a gift to see the lives that are being transformed.

I am reminded that there is always hope even in the midst of dire uncertainty, and the women with whom we work, in places like the DRC, have reminded me of this many times. With that reminder, I am once again moved by the way these women face the uncertain situation in their country. They face it with exhilarating clarity and the strong conviction that they can make a difference within their sphere of influence at the grassroots level—and they often do. They are successful in this because they believe they can indeed make a difference. Thankfully, we at Women for Women International help them achieve those beliefs and those outcomes.

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My Journey back to Rwanda by Judithe Registre

I first worked in Rwanda in 2001. Since then, I have had the privilege to travel through the country on numerous occasions.  Each time I am in Rwanda, I am moved to see the transformation that has taken place and continues to occur as Rwanda redefines itself.

We hear a great deal about how corruption is rampant in Africa, how African states are useless to their population, and how poverty is eating away at people’s dignity. I can go on with this list that so typifies the illustration of Africa, but that is not my goal as I reflect on my visit to Rwanda. Yet I will make this one point before I proceed. There is too little being said in the discussions that lump Africa into a single country about how a country like Rwanda is defying all of those odds that are given for the African Continent all too often.

The leadership’s commitment to womens involvement in all aspects of Rwanda’s development to the rebuilding of its infrastructure and human resources development are just a few of the things that move me as I encounter Rwanda again. Despite all these things, I am most startled by what I have witnessed through the Women for Women Program. Building Rwanda’s infrastructure, such as roads, homes, schools, and myriad others is perhaps the easier thing to accomplish based on the commitment and available resources. What is significantly more difficult to do in Rwanda because of the conflict is to refresh people’s souls and help them regain their trust in each other. This, I know all too well, is a long journey and will continue with each succeeding generation. Yet clearly, the group in society with the greatest potential to contribute to the rebuilding of trust is without a doubt the women of Rwanda.

At Women for Women International, the groups of women that come together to participate in the comprehensive educational and vocational skills training do so despite their different backgrounds. What they have in common is a willingness and determination to change their lives and those of their families and communities. We support them in that mission. In Rwanda, seeing women from different ethnic groups mired in that drive to transform their communities is the beacon of light that helps one understand the possibilities that exist for continued growth and stability in Rwanda. Forgiveness is not often granted without understanding, and with each group discussion, understanding is generated. You often see women building those bridges of trust. Indeed, such bridges are absolutely vital to Rwanda’s future. To hear a woman—a total stranger who has never met me before—say that she loves me and wants to see me to do well, motivates me to find the strength I need to love my neighbors. Hating does not help the pain go away; it never will. Her realization is perhaps that forgiveness might help lighten the load of the pain she bears. And with each burden that is laid to rest, the women find the peace and understanding they need to consolidate the foundation of the bridge of trust.

While in Rwanda I am reminded, that we do more than simply help women rebuild their lives by gaining skills and knowledge. We help them build trust through understanding, which is an ingredient that is perfectly essential to peace and nation building.

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