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Making Your Womanhood Work for You: Empowering Women in Rwanda

This spring break, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Rwanda for nine days with a group of my classmates.   As delegates from the Harvard Black Law Students Association’s Africa Summit Committee, our goals were threefold: to experience a part of the African Diaspora unfamiliar to us, to engage with political and legal leaders in Rwanda,  and most importantly, to participate in a community service project with genocide survivors from the Hinga Kawa Women’s Association, a fair trade coffee cooperative located north of the capital city.

This post will be a bit unlike the others I have written in the past; rather than examine the tactics of individual female attorneys to  break through the glass ceiling, I will describe some of the innovative legal and political strategies taken by the post-genocide Rwandan government to empower women. 

During the trip, I learned that Rwanda’s efforts to break historical barriers for its female lawyers and politicians are truly admirable.  Even though Rwandan law requires that only 30 percent of the Parliament comprise women (a policy that I consider commendable in itself) , Rwanda is the only nation in the world with a majority-female Parliament.  In addition, the Chief Justice of the Rwandan Supreme Court is a woman.  Over the past few years, the number of women enrolled at the nation’s only public law school has increased from 20 percent to 42 percent.

But Rwanda’s efforts to provide opportunities for women goes beyond impressive statistics.  Recognizing that many women became widows and heads of households after the 1994 genocide, the government looked for programs that would allow women to become economically independent from their husbands.  Hinga Kawa, the women’s coffee cooperative our group visited, is an example of Rwanda’s effort to create sustainable income for its women—rather than encourage women to uphold historical barriers that force them to rely on their husbands for income, Rwanda chose to use law and policy to create incentives for women to earn money on their own, coming together to create long-term economic opportunities for themselves and for their children.  Not only does the government acquire bank loans for the formation of coffee and tea cooperatives like Hinga Kawa, but the government also regulates  interest rates on such loans, allowing to women to earn fair wages for their product.

         

Hinga Kawa works like this: each member contributes a plot of land, which is used to grow high quality coffee (and less primarily, the most delicious pineapple I’ve ever tasted in my life).  The coffee plantation is located high in the hills of Rwanda, off an unpaved dirt road; the women explained that even though some of them have to walk as far as six hours each way to reach the plantation, the quality of their product depends on growing the beans at a high altitude.  The women (no, men are not allowed in the co-op) elect a president and secretary; they participate in weekly meetings to discuss the affairs of their business.  All the coffee grown at Hinga Kawa is sold at fair trade prices.  The co-op provides each woman and her family with health insurance, among other benefits.

As I learned about the amazing opportunities Rwanda affords its women, the cynic in me asked:  Why?  How is it that a country that was forced to basically build itself from scratch only 17 years ago can be so focused on providing equal opportunity for both genders?  This Rwanda I speak of is the same nation that was torn apart less than two decades ago by the genocide for which it was has become infamous—the genocide that resulted in the deaths of one million Rwandans in a matter of some 90 days. 

In a meeting with President Kagame, I learned just how deeply Rwanda’s legal system is committed to its women.  The President inadvertently answered my question by describing the empowerment of women as simply  an “issue of common sense.”

I challenge us all to think of female empowerment as an issue of common sense--particularly in the legal field, where women have proven time and again that their insights and intellect are second to no man’s.   Maybe then we can all be on the same page as the Land of 1,000 Hills.   

 

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