The Nation (Nairobi)

Rwanda: Female-Majority House Elects Speaker After Historic Poll

Kigali — Rwanda's newly elected Members of Parliament voted in the first ever woman Speaker today, setting a record as the first female-majority parliament in the whole world.

Ms Mukantabama Rose, representative of Kigali city beat Mr Mukama Abbas the only male contesting for the same post with 70 votes to become the leader of Rwanda's Chamber of Deputies.

The ceremony was presided over by President Paul Kagame.

Monday's swearing in ceremony in Kigali saw 45 women taking oath in the country's bicameral parliament of 80 Deputies.

After last month's parliamentary elections, the tiny East African country will after the swearing in ceremony, officially become the first nation in the world to elect a majority of women to its legislative assembly.

Fourteen years after the genocide, Rwanda's established constitution adopted after a referendum held in 2003 guarantees 30 per cent quota of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, for women.

In last month's elections, an unprecedented 20 of the 53 seats went to women after the ruling RPF party headed by President Kagame, endorsed 35 female candidates in an inter-party coalition.

The official opposition parties including the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Liberal Party (PL) also fielded women for the polls.

One of two seats reserved for youth also went to a woman.

This was interpreted by Rwanda's National Electoral Commission (NEC) to mean that 98 per cent of Rwandan voters opted for a 56 per cent representation of women in parliament making it the largest number of female MPs in a single legislative assembly.

Though on average women constitute only 17.0 per cent of representatives in parliaments across the world, the Rwandan situation was last week hailed by both the African Union (AU) and United Nation (UN) as a milestone in the world of female politics.

Met the quota

The AU secretariat said that Rwanda's elections made the tiny East African country the first in Africa to meet the 50 per quota as stipulated in the AU's Protocol to the African Charter on Rights of Women in Africa.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which advised Rwandans on how to write a 'gender-sensitive' constitution, also reportedly said that, "No other country is doing what Rwanda is doing to bring women into the political process."

Today, women in Rwanda also account for 36 per cent of President Paul Kagame's Cabinet, holding the top jobs in the ministries of commerce, agriculture, infrastructure, foreign affairs and information.

This is something that won Rwanda's President Paul Kagame accolade of the African Gender Award in Dakar, Senegal in 2007.

NEC's Chairman Prof Chrysologue Karangwa says: "Since 1994 our country is really focusing on gender promotion. So in terms of gender promotion, when you have an increasing number of women, of course you are in a positive way implementing that policy.

That is why we are very pleased to see that the number of women in our parliament is increasing."

The genocide - the slaughter of ethnic Tutsis by Hutu militias in 1994 - and the ensuing retributions, left Rwanda with a population that was 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male.

During the genocide many women were raped and others widowed.

Apart from their own memories of murder and of rape, they collectively faced a future of poverty, disease and displacement.

The last highest ranking woman in Rwanda's politics, the country's first female Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana was killed by genocide extremists in events that preceded the 1994.

With thousands more men jailed for war crimes or living as refugees in neighbouring Congo, Rwanda's women, at first by default, took on roles in business and politics.

Although they had long enjoyed a relatively higher social status in Rwanda than in some other African nations, women here still had weak property rights, and female entrepreneurs were rare.

Rwanda's first parliament in 1994 contained 70 seats with eight held by women.

In January 1997, women's representation in the Chamber of Deputies rose to 17.1 per cent in November 2000; it rose again to 25.7 per cent.

In 2003, the new Constitution included a quota policy assuring women 'at least 30 per cent of posts in decision-making organs.

According to the 'Imbuto Foundation' in Rwanda, an organization headed by the First Lady Jeannette Kagame, Rwanda's success in economics mirrored the rise of women in politics.

Information from the World Bank indicates that, 41 per cent of Rwandan businesses are now owned by women as compared for instance with 18 per cent in Congo.

According to the World Bank Rwanda has the second-highest ratio of female entrepreneurs in Africa, behind Ghana with 44 per cent.

Ms, Monique Nsanzabaganwa, cabinet minister says that though the population is balancing out, women edge men by a rate of 52 to 48.

Ms Nsanzabaganwa says that women make up 55 per cent of the workforce.

The new female led parliament is now challenged with an awesome responsibility of leading the nation forward.

Some in the country are optimistic that having more mothers in the bicameral parliament will help ensure peace and heal the wounds of the past.

Her third term

Ms Connie Bwiza Sekamana who joins the other women, serving her third term in parliament says, "The women of Rwanda, as tradition and culture has put, they have always been in the backyard. And now they are coming to the limelight. And they can express themselves."

"Women have never been exposed to the public political positions. So we need affirmative action.

"So through this affirmative action we said it is the only way that women can come out and get in public and get ideas," she says.

A female majority in parliament gender issues will prominently feature on the political agenda of the women deputies.

The female deputies in parliament regardless of which political affiliation are set to have a female solidarity that will promote positive improvements for women over both party politics and other policy areas.

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