August 17, 2018

Rwanda—Why Does It Matter to Us?

Private collection
The author with Rwandan village women whose only source of income is growing mushrooms.
The author with Rwandan village women whose only source of income is growing mushrooms.

This African nation is a gender equality role model

The East African country of Rwanda, which is ten times larger than Estonia in terms of population and a smaller in territory, is infamous for the genocide that occurred two decades ago and famous for providing equal opportunities for women today. As the chair of the Estonia-Rwanda parliamentary friendship group, I visited the country in early May together with the vice chair, Terje Trei. I saw much that gives food for thought, because Rwanda needs closer attention. The genocide is a trauma that will stay with Rwandans for years to come. At the same time, they are trying to do everything to leave that burden behind for good.

1994: The Year of Rwanda

The Hutu and Tutsi lived peacefully side by side 150 years ago. There was a third group: the pygmies, who were called the Twa. Then white men came and declared themselves masters. As a result of the 1885 Berlin Conference, Rwanda was handed over to Germany. During World War I, Ruanda-Urundi became the property of Belgium. In 1919, Belgium received a full mandate from the League of Nations to rule the region.

About 90 years ago the Belgian authorities started to issue personal identity documents to Rwandans. For this purpose, they measured Rwandans’ general height, and catalogued their noses and the size of their property. Those who had longer noses and more property (i.e. cows) were registered as Tutsi in their identity documents; those who had flatter and shorter noses and less property were registered as Hutu. If a person gained or lost property, they could go from being Tutsi to Hutu or vice versa. Despite what the colonists had laid down about them in their annals, Rwandans still lived side by side in villages. They spoke the same language of ikinyarwanda (Rwandan), and understood their history and culture the same way.

The Belgians bet on the Tutsi minority. This was the situation as late as a decade before the end of the colonial period. However, two years before Rwanda gained independence in 1962, the Belgians helped the Hutu majority to power in rigged elections. The Belgians’ principle of divide and conquer had undermined the situation, which in reality resulted in increasing violence against the Tutsi. More than 100,000 Tutsi were forced to leave Rwanda and escape to neighbouring countries or even further afield, to Europe and the US.

In the early 1990s, expatriate Rwandans, primarily Tutsi, joined forces as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). They started their attack from the north. The Rwandan Civil War began. A short-lived truce was agreed in 1993, but none of the parties took the document seriously. Between April and July 1994, a gruesome genocide took place, and some 900,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days. The victims were mainly Tutsi, but moderate Hutu and some Twa who got in the way suffered their share too. People were killed indiscriminately.

The International Community Simply Watched

It is sad but true that UN peacekeepers did little to alleviate the heightened tensions. Rwandans are right a thousand times over when they say that the world let them down. The blue-helmeted UN force in the country reported events in Rwanda, as they were supposed to. They also warned that something terrible was about to happen. At the last moment, a fax was sent to UN headquarters in New York, asking that the organisation decide quickly what the peacekeeping mission in Kigali should do. The global organisation’s response did not match the situation that had developed.

The US, which styled itself as a global police force and usually stormed into crisis locations, did not want to get involved, either. The reason was simple: in 1993, 18 American servicemen had died in Somalia. The recent deaths kept the US away from Rwanda. So the country was forsaken to drown in blood.


The failed state that Rwanda became in the mid-1990s needed to move on. A fifth of the population had been killed. The perpetrators fled to neighbouring countries, and the Tutsi who had escaped in 1962 returned after 34 years of exile. Everyone could point the finger at their neighbour and say that her husband or son had killed someone from their family.

In reality, it was the widows who started to piece things together again at the grass-roots level. Village women got together, sat down and talked, talked and talked. This unique form of administration of justice is called gacaca and it means that people sit outside on the lawn and discuss issues until they are resolved. There were 160,000 gacacas all over Rwanda and a third of these were headed by women. The final decision was to forgive one another.

Of course, it is naive to think that there were no official court sittings or cases that would reach the International Criminal Court (ICC). There were! Two thousand cases were heard in the national legal system, and 70 cases at the UN level. Still, if 1.2 million cases hadn’t been discussed on the lawn at the gacaca, Rwanda wouldn’t be where it is today. The small nation that lost 20% of its population as a result of ethnic cleansing has risen from the ashes. We have a lot to learn from Rwanda.


One of the most radical environmental laws in the world was passed in the Rwandan parliament 10 years ago. It is prohibited to produce and use plastic bags in the country, and offenders are prosecuted.

It is the solemn duty of everyone, especially members of parliament, to participate regularly in monthly community work days (umuganda). This mainly means clearing away waste, especially plastic, from the city streets and fields in the countryside.

I saw with my own eyes that the capital city, Kigali, looks pristine. It is one of the cleanest capitals I have visited—not only in Africa, but the world. The villages we saw during our visit to Rwanda were also clean and well-organised. There were lots of flowers and bins. Young people picked up rubbish and threw it into a bin if they noticed some lying around. By the way, young people make up nearly three-quarters of the population.

Fixing Public Health

All Rwandans have health insurance. The government has managed to get malaria under control. The numbers speak for themselves: child mortality has fallen by two-thirds over the past 15 years. The Rwandan government website states that only 32 children out of 1,000 die under the age of five. During the same period, the maternal death rate has declined by 80%. Rwandan families have an average of four children.

We must keep in mind that, before and during the genocide, Rwanda was a classic landlocked failed state. It has no mineral resources. The country exports tea and coffee, and tourism is developing. Things are getting better. However, we cannot stay silent about the other side of the coin. Today, 39% of the population lives in relative poverty, while 16% of Rwandans have to make do in conditions of absolute poverty. But trends show that the situation is, again, improving. The Rwandan government has set the goal that by 2024 15% of the population will still live in relative poverty but no Rwandans will be below the poverty threshold.

Help from Information Technology

Sixty per cent of Rwandan men and 40% of women currently have mobile phones. The entire territory of Rwanda has internet coverage. Rwandans can proudly say that their country is one of the most sophisticated in Africa in terms of IT. Rwanda is striving to become the centre of African IT. A “Transform Africa” summit began just after the Riigikogu delegation left Kigali. It was the fifth time the meeting had been held, and representatives of all 22 member states of Smart Africa were present, not to mention the private sector. Estonia was also there with a large business delegation—IT unites Estonia and Rwanda.

In terms of business development, Rwanda ranks 41st in the World Bank’s 2017 Ease of Doing Business Index. On the continental level, Rwanda ranks an impressive second in Sub-Saharan Africa. First place is held by Mauritius, which ranks 25th in the World Bank’s overall index, while the continent’s third—Kenya—is as low as 80th. (By the way, Estonia is 12th in the index.)

Gender Equality

Women hold the majority—64%—of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber of the bicameral Rwandan parliament, and make up 38% of the Senate. Rwandan politicians say that, after the 1994 genocide, the patriarchal country had to change significantly its traditions of administration. Women needed to be involved in governance. On the one hand, this political decision was influenced by the gacaca experience; and on the other, this is seen as Rwanda’s total liberation from its historical burden. The term “gender revolution” is used quite widely.

The initiative isn’t all talk and no action. It is clearly stated in the 2003 constitution that at least 30% of those involved in making decisions at all levels must be women. Ten years ago, a law to tackle domestic violence was passed, clearly providing for prevention work and punishment. The 2009 labour law has a similar spirit, as it underlines everyone’s equal opportunities and women’s right to receive equal pay for equal work. It also prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.

The 2013 land act, however, is revolutionary. It may seem a trifling matter from the European perspective, but the women of other African states praised and admired Rwanda at the March 2018 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The land act guarantees women equal opportunities in acquiring, owning and using land. Twenty-six per cent of land in Rwanda is currently owned by women, 18% by men, and 54% is co-owned by men and women. Rwanda is the only country of the 55 in Africa where women can own land.

Five years ago, Rwanda began gender-budgeting, similar to Iceland. A Gender Budget Statement forms a compulsory part of the annual budget. Euthalie Nyirabega, head of the Rwandan parliament’s political committee and committee on gender equality, commented that in the Rwandan context gender equality means sustainability.

A Leading Role in Africa and the World

Rwanda’s fame for gender equality means it is a constant presence at gender balance forums all over the world. While the patriarchal Rwanda of the 19th century had only one important woman—Umugabekazi or the King’s mother—and the pre-genocide Rwanda had the saying “Behind every strong man there is a strong woman” (ukurusha umugore, akurusha n’urugo), in the Republic of Rwanda of 2018 women participate in governing the country as men’s equals. The parliamentary speaker and foreign minister are women; the prime minister and president are men. True, President Paul Kagame is placed on a pedestal of his own. No matter how the president was mentioned during our visit, it could be seen that Rwandan women respect Kagame and are grateful to him for promoting women’s rights.

As the leader of Rwanda, which presides over the African Union this year, Kagame is trying to steer Africa towards reform. It is certain that he’ll keep an eye on the subject of gender equality in the African Union. One of the outcomes of the January summit was that by 2025—seven years from now—the top positions in the Union must be distributed equally between men and women. The 50:50 principle has gained a lot of ground: the positions of special representatives and heads of units must be divided equally between women and men.

Last but not least, 52% of the Rwandan and Estonian population are women. According to the 2017 report of the World Economic Forum, Rwanda ranks fourth in gender equality after Iceland, Norway and Finland. Estonia ranks 37th.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.