17 March 2010

Rwanda: Woman Vies for Top Job

Kigali — On average women constitute 18.8 percent of representatives in parliaments across the world according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). This gender imbalance has been subject to much feminist criticism and many campaigns for change have been staged to address the status quo. The situation is however different in Rwanda.

With 56 percent representation, Rwandese women are sitting on top of the world rankings of women in national parliaments despite the 1994 genocide that left more than 800 000 people dead and countless women raped.

Rwandan women achieved this impressive figure in parliament by taking an active role in the country's reconstruction and lobbying heavily for a constitutional quota for women in the lower house of parliament. They were also able to push for the creation of a government ministry of women's affairs to promote policies in favour of women's interests.

It came as no surprise then when Victoire Ingabire came back home in January 2010 after 16 years in exile in the Netherlands and immediately declared her interest in the country's top political job.

"My objective is to introduce Rwanda to the rule of law and a constitutional state where international democratic standards are respected, where nationalism will at last be the cornerstone for all public institutions," she told IPS.

Ingabire, a Hutu, was born on 3 October 1968 in Kibilira in western Rwanda. She is the Chairperson of the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF) a coalition of Rwandan opposition parties with members in Rwanda, Europe, United States of America and in Canada. She has been elected by her party as the official candidate for the next presidential election in Rwanda come August 2010.

With Rwanda's recent history, having a female in the top leadership position may not seem such a strange idea to Rwandan voters. Not only do women dominate parliament, but there are several women heading key ministries in the current government. The country has had a female Prime Minister in the past. Agathe Uwilingiyimana headed a transitional government as caretaker leader for less than a year before her assassination in April 1994.

However, Ingabire is of the view that despite the numbers, women in politics in her country are still far from making a political difference.

"There is no women's empowerment. It is all fiction. What matters is not the number, but the share of power that is given to them. There is still a long way to go in translating women's nominal weight into effective decision making share," said Ingabire.

It is one reason why she wants to contest the election. "Women's political weight is yet to be seen. I am not interested in cosmetic changes whereby women are nominated for propaganda motives. I want to see women's fingerprints in all sectors of the society," she told IPS. "Mine should not be a mere women ticket but one which will make a difference."

A controversial figure, upon her return from exile Ingabire called for justice not only for Tutsis murdered in the genocide but also for the Hutus who were affected. She says the intimidation she has experienced at the hands of suspected state security agents during her campaign are testimony that female participation in the country's politics is not a naturally embraced phenomenon.

Yaliwe Clarke a lecturer with the University of Cape Town based Africa Gender Institute, also cautioned on the need to look beyond numbers, "It has been predicted that if you have a critical mass of women in power then things can change."

She however said it was not automatic that all the women elected believe in gender equality, "Will they address issues to do with gender-based violence, for instance?" she asked.

Meanwhile women from other countries in transition are looking to Rwanda for lessons on how to achieve parity in politics and decision-making. Beater Nyamupinga, the Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Women's Parliamentary Caucus believes Rwanda can proffer women in her country a number of lessons in enforcing gender equality in the constitution. Zimbabwe is currently going through a constitution making process in line with the Global Political Agreement signed by the three main political rivals following elections marked by violence in 2008.

"We simply need to put up mechanisms that respond to the needs of women. Rwandan women taught us how to push for proportional representation in all spheres of life through the electoral systems which should guarantee women an equal quota," said Nyamupinga.

Ingabire admits that taking a shot at the presidency, currently occupied by Paul Kagame of ruling the Rwanda Patriotic Front, which has steered the country on a growth path since 1994, is a herculean task. But she remains hopeful.

Among issues she has used to attract voters has been her call for the creation of a Committee on Truth, Justice and Reconciliation to help Rwandans towards a true reconciliation. She also promised to introduce a non-political commission in charge of rewriting and interpretation of the actual history of Rwanda as well as the passing of a bill for the right to private ownership and for protection of the poor citizens that guarantee equality before the law.

"My chances of winning the top job depend on the will of the people to bring a new wave of change in governance, in terms of transparency, justice for all, reconciliation, and good neighbourliness. I will win because people want to move from a post war political management to fully fledged democracy," said Ingabire.

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