Rwanda Leads the World in Women Lawmakers

By Elaine Tucci
Elaine Tucci is the Co-Founder and CEO of Women Lead to Change

In Rwanda and a few other African countries, improvements in care for expectant mothers and newborns are allowing many more to survive and remain healthy. UN Photo

As the world learns more about the promise of women to bring peace, prosperity and economic well-being to nations, Rwanda has become a poster child of this promise. Thriving after one of the most brutal genocides in history, today Rwanda is referred to as the heart of the African Renaissance.

In September’s elections Rwandans once again voted in a female majority parliament, directly electing 26 women in addition to the 24 seats reserved for females in the constitution. Rwanda has come to be the world’s leader in women lawmakers holding an unprecedented 64 percent of seats in Rwanda’s parliament, more than any another country in the world. Women also occupy some of the most important government ministries, holding approximately one third of all cabinet positions.

As a result, life is changing fast for women in Rwanda and these investments in women will have a ripple effect that will improve life for their families, communities and the country as a whole. To begin a list of astounding accomplishments, the small African nation has cut poverty by 12% in six years, from 57% of its population to 45%. This is roughly one million Rwandans emerging from poverty, most of them women and children — one of the most stunning drops in the world.

Paul Collier, director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University notes that Rwanda can be compared to an East Asian-style “developmental state,” where the government is very serious about growing the economy. “The economy was well managed, with inflation kept low, and the business environment improved.” As a result, over the course of six years Rwanda has moved from around 140th to 60th in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” annual rating.

Some changes in Rwanda are obvious to the eye, such as houses that have tin roofs instead of thatch. A decent roof is one of the first changes people make when they start the ascent out of poverty. Some of the changes are psychological. There is a sense and a hope that things really can improve, and a sense that individual families can do something to better their circumstances.

Josh Ruxin, director of Rwanda Works has lived with his family in Rwanda since 2005. He notes the amazing infrastructure and economic development improvements he has witnessed. “Five years ago, traveling anywhere in the country was bound to be a bumpy ride, if the way was even passable. Today, east-to-west and north-to-south, the road infrastructure is impressive and continues to expand. Five years ago, the country struggled to get tourists in for $375 permits to visit Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. Today, during high season, there are not enough $500 tickets to meet the demand. Five years ago, there were no supermarkets or ATMs, and the cheapest cell phones cost $50. Today there are multiple supermarkets, over a dozen international ATMs, and cell phones that cost $14 are plentiful.”

Ruxin notes that access to formerly inconsistent electricity and running water even for those who could pay for it, is being constantly improved. Hotels and restaurants are popping up everywhere and a service sector is emerging to meet heightened tourism demand. Wireless broadband is being installed across the country and more universities, technical schools, and preschools are opening. The second national language has shifted from French to English.

A Dedicated Focus on Health Outcomes and Family Planning

A young woman with her baby outside the Muhura health post. Photo: Didier Habimana
A young woman with her baby outside the Muhura health post.
Photo: Didier Habimana

To accomplish the stunning drop in poverty major investments were made in the rural poor and extensive improvements were made in health programs and outcomes. Collier notes that “most of the achievement is likely due to domestic policies.”

At a summit to review the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), Rwanda was commended for its very likely success in meeting and possibly even surpassing the MDG targets for child and maternal mortality by 2015. According to officials at UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, which provides contraceptives and other support to rural communities, Rwanda has literally brought its health care system back to life. The government has initiated bold reforms and innovative approaches to make health care accessible and affordable for everyone, with a strong emphasis on reproductive health, including family planning.

Much of the credit for successes goes to the government’s successful health insurance program. Its removal of user fees for family planning services has contributed to significant increases in use of services. There has been a jump from 9% to 26% of contraceptive prevalence among married women aged 15-49, and the skilled birth attendance rate increased from 39% to 52%.

“This a real achievement,” says Asha Mohamud, a reproductive health advisor for UNFPA. “It often takes decades for countries to see this kind of change.”

The Mayange Health Centre is located in the heart of the Bugesera district, just south of the capital city of Kigali. Built in 1999, the clinic serves 25,000 people. Until early 2006, it saw only 5 to 10 patients a day. Nurses were rarely in attendance and pharmaceuticals were not available. Lights had been installed in the facility but there was no electricity to power them. With the new investments in the government’s health insurance program the center has rapidly transformed into a model for the nation.

Enrollment in the clinics programs has grown quickly, and the number of patients has skyrocketed to more than 150 each day. Those enrolled pay an annual premium equivalent to 2 US dollars and women who keep four appointments during a pregnancy can deliver at no cost. Staff training and infrastructure improvements have significantly enhanced services, and now the lights are turned on permanently.

Other major changes include new equipment and more staff to contribute to safe and hygienic births. The clinic used to only have three trained nurses and most mothers were still giving birth at home. Now it has eighteen nurses available and most of the mothers in the area now give birth at the health center. Life expectancy for the babies has improved as well and mothers are educated to stay for three days after delivery to ensure the health of their newborn.

The initial results of these health investments in Rwanda are impressive. Child mortality has decreased by over 30% since 2005 and maternal mortality declined by 25 % in the years up to 2005. There has been a decline in the fertility rate from 6.1 to 5.5 children per woman, and achievement of immunization rates of 95% were attained by 2008.

The Need for More Progress

These new achievements will have notable effects on the population as a whole as the country grows, but even more progress is needed. The land in Rwanda is already intensively settled, and the hillsides densely cultivated with bananas, coffee and vegetables. With approximately 368 people per square kilometer, Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. And because of its terrain — the country is known as the land of a thousand hills – that means that not all of the land is arable. And with two thirds of its population under the age of 25, dropping fertility rates are good news. The dramatic expansion of family planning that is taking place and the growing desire for smaller families will be a key feature to managing future growth.

There is still much to done, however. For example, women in the rural Muhura area still bear an average of six children or more. Until recently, they had little choice in the matter. According to representatives from UNFPA, the nearest health clinic, like about 60% of the health services in Rwanda, is run by the Catholic Church. The only contraceptive devices offered there are cycle beads, a refinement of the rhythm method. Transportation to these rural health posts is problematic as busses pass through town only a couple of times a week, and there are no private cars. An “ambulance” is traditionally four men carrying someone in a hammock dozens of kilometers or more over hilly rutted roads to the nearest hospital.

But thanks to new investments from the government today women can be referred to new secondary health posts, where family planning counseling and contraceptives are available free of charge. In Muhura for example, the Health Ministry converted an empty building into a secondary health post that offers family planning information and services three days a week. 65 secondary rural health posts have already been established throughout the country, and 21 more centers are planned.

Once the health post opened, women began coming, first in a trickle, then in droves. “Now we see about 50 women a day,” said the nurse who runs the rural post program in Muhura.
Rwandan women have not always been so accepting of family planning. Traditionally, having children has been a source of respect and pride and rumors and misconceptions about contraceptives, and fear of side effects were common. But According to UNFPA officials a massive effort is underway to educate Rwandan communities, both men and women, about the value of smaller families. The government is very conscious of demographic trends, said Cheik Falls, the UNFPA deputy representative in the country. “They know that they have a special country because of the all the hills. If the demographic aspects are not mastered, it will jeopardize development efforts.”

As a result of this growing awareness attitudes are changing and the desire for smaller families is increasing. At a meeting in Muhura hosted by UNFPA, officials noted that when local women were asked, “How many have more than five children?” dozens of women raised their hands.

And when asked “How many are done having children?” almost all of the hands went up. According to DHS data, only 7 % of married women in Rwanda want to have another child soon.

“I want to raise the three children I have properly and pay for their education,” says a 28-year-old mother. “When you have a lot of children you will remain poor.”

Now that contraception has been made more widely available, women who want to stop having babies but whose husbands object are told it is their right to choose. Some even go to these rural health posts in secret for three-monthly injections.

These secondary health posts are attracting clients and interest in modern contraceptive methods, says Daphrose Nyirasafali, a reproductive health and rights officer with UNFPA Rwanda. “The government and its partners are optimistic this strategy will boost the adoption of modern family planning methods, resulting in a more manageable fertility rate and sustainable development.”

Changing Laws are Changing Perceptions

Clearly, what is happening in Rwanda is little short of revolutionary.
“There used to be a lot of rapes, wife beating, male domination of women, boys sent to school and not girls,” said Nyirasafali. “That has all changed, even in the countryside.” Rape is now acknowledged as a very serious offense and there is a free police hotline and heavy jail sentences for perpetrators. The legislature has also passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, although these issues remain a vexing issue for the country.

Rwandan women now have the right to own land and property and when they marry they may choose to combine their assets with their husband or they can keep them separate. Inheritance laws have been passed to split a man’s property equally between his wife and both female and male children. As a result the divorce rate is increasing.

A legislative committee has combed through the countries legal code and has compiled a list of laws to modify or toss out altogether to put an end to gender discrimination, including one that requires a woman to get her husband’s signature to receive a bank loan.

New social norms are also unfolding. Traditionally in Rwanda men and women operated in separate spheres and played different roles, said Juliana Kantengwa, a member of Rwanda’s senate. “There were no-go areas, like drumming,” she said, that were male only preserves. During opening ceremonies, we now have teams of girls drumming with strength, enthusiasm and skill. “We (now) see fathers encouraging their daughters to do engineering and get out of nursing. (And) we have quite a number in the army and police force.” Women are driving the economy — working on construction sites, in factories and as truck and taxi drivers.
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister, and one of eight female ministers, said no one should view Rwanda’s women parliamentarians as “window dressing”. “We have a lot of influence,” Mushikiwabo said. “The president is present most of the time in our cabinet meetings. He encourages us to think out of the box and initiate policy. It’s a very open forum. That’s where all the major decisions for the country are made.”

Having a female majority voice can certainly change priorities. “The fact that we are so many has made it possible for men to listen to our views,” said lawmaker Espérance Mwiza. “Now that we’re a majority, we can do even more.”

Rwanda’s progress for women is being admired around the globe. The government convened an international forum on the role of leadership in gender equality and woman’s empowerment, attracting women ministers, MPs and dignitaries from all over Africa and the world, including the UN deputy secretary general from Tanzania, Asha-Rose Migiro. “I salute you for bringing gender and equality to the heart of the political process,” she told the forum in the Rwandan parliament.

So what is next for this African Renaissance? The government has now set its sights on getting the country to middle-income levels. Growth so far has come primarily from improving existing systems and services. Collier says that to reach middle income, “Rwanda needs pioneer investors and aid to support them with public infrastructure; I hope that it gets them. If it does, then, yes, poverty can continue to fall fast.”

Rwanda’s astounding achievements are welcome news on a continent where overall progress towards these goals has barely registered. They demonstrate what is possible when political will and innovative policy meet the promise of women in leadership.


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