Does the dominance of women in Rwanda's parliament signify real change?

The high number of women parliamentarians obscures their unequal participation in other leadership positions.

The win by President Paul Kagame’s party in the recently concluded parliamentary elections of 16–18 September 2013 raised hardly any eyebrows. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) dominated the elections, which most observer missions described as calm and peaceful, with a 76,2% win. Women claimed 51 of the 80 contested seats, representing a 64% female presence in parliament’s chamber of deputies, once again setting a record for Rwanda and the world. Nevertheless, these gains mask the ongoing difficulties faced by women in terms of representation and participation in other decision-making positions outside of parliament.

Rwanda’s National Gender Statistics Report for 2013, released by the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, records mixed results for gender parity in representation. Apart from the higher female representation in parliament and equal representation (50%) in the state minister and permanent secretary posts, women’s representation elsewhere is generally lower than that of men. For example, only 38,5% of senators and 36,8% of ministers are women.

The same report also notes that only 23,8% of Rwanda’s ambassadors are women. At the level of public institutions’ directors general and executive secretaries, women hold only 15,7% of positions. The situation looks the same elsewhere: men constitute 94,1% of the rectors of public institutions, 73,2% of the members of public institution boards and 54,5% of civil servants.

The representation of women at lower levels of governance is also very marginal. As one moves away from the capital, this becomes even more apparent, especially at district and community level. For instance, 93,3% of all mayors are male, while 75% of the governors are men. Just 6,7% of the district executive secretaries are female. A mere 9,1% of the sector executive secretaries are women, as are 37,7% of the cell executive secretaries.

These numbers suggest that the gains being made in women’s parliamentary representation and participation differ from those for women in other levels of governance or decision-making positions. As a matter of fact, apart from parliament, the courts, state and ministerial posts, the constitutional threshold of 30% is hardly being met in many instances. This is especially true at lower levels of governance, if the above government statistics are anything to go by.

Rwanda’s women and the government thus still have their work cut out for them in ensuring gender parity at all levels of decision-making. Politicians’ touting of the parliamentary wins tends to camouflage the contrasting realities for women elsewhere. The wins gained could thus be cast as a smokescreen to obscure the under-representation and unequal participation of women in other areas of leadership.

Women parliamentarians have received praise for using some of their influence in policy changes pertaining to women’s concerns, especially with regard to inheritance, land rights and violence against women. Yet despite these gains, there are concerns regarding the extent of transformation so far in women’s empowerment. The gaps listed in the above report suggest why this question is likely to resonate increasingly in future. The familiar feminist question of numbers vis-à-vis the quality of the numbers is thus likely to become more pronounced. This will especially become the case as the number of women in parliament continues to increase while segments of the female population, particularly the rural poor, still don’t feel their own needs are being adequately addressed or represented.

The RPF’s apparent push for its own candidates for election in the seats reserved for women – whether to achieve the required quotas or due to these women’s loyalty to the RPF, rather than their competence – is another matter altogether. This is one of the major criticisms some analysts have levelled against the RPF government, in particular the possible fronting of women for purposes of political expediency and to rubber-stamp the government’s agenda. If this is the case, then these are indeed hollow gains, ones that are incapable of bringing about the comprehensive institutional and systemic transformation required to achieve the country’s gender parity objectives.

Women’s participation in Rwanda’s political processes is also tempered by the shrunken political space, caused by the low-level of tolerance for any significant criticism against the government. Critics have to fear persecution or accusations of ‘divisionist’ politics. Women in the opposition thus find their political breathing space quite limited.

One such woman – Victoire Ingabire, leader of the United Democratic Forces-Ikingi (FDU-Ikingi) – remains incarcerated, charged by Rwanda’s High Court with plotting against the country ‘through terrorism and war’ and ‘denial of genocide’. Ingabire, nominated in 2012 by the European Union parliament for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which ‘honours exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression’, intended to contest the 2010 presidential elections. However, the government prevented the registration of new political parties in the run-up to the elections, thus effectively barring her from running for the seat. The Supreme Court, which was set to rule on 1 November on her appeal against the charges, has since postponed the ruling to 13 December.

However, the role of women in general in Rwanda’s peacebuilding efforts cannot be gainsaid. The extent to which they have mobilised at all levels to bring about reconciliation, healing and recovery following the genocide is remarkable. Their active role in cultivating a peace agenda is especially commendable, with their country being among only a handful of African countries that have developed an action plan for the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

Even so, as Rwanda embarks on the implementation of the 2013–2016 action plan, and as the world applauds the gains women continue to make in its parliament, Rwanda’s women must interrogate and address the reasons why their participation in many other leadership spaces outside of parliament remains marginal.

Irene Ndungu, Consultant, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

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