By Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rwanda has made progress in tackling gender inequality over the past 20 years, but women still lag behind in traditionally male-dominated fields like science and business, and violence against women remains a challenge, a campaigner said.
Fatuma Ndangiza, who previously held several positions in the Rwandan ministry of gender, said a genocide that shattered her country in 1994 also changed gender roles.
Because so many men were killed in the slaughter of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, women in many communities found themselves doing the work that the men had once done.
"Before the genocide it was taboo for a woman to construct a house or milk a cow (but) if men are not there, what do you do?" Ndangiza told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on the sidelines of a women’s rights conference in New York. ”(Women) had to undertake roles that were usually carried out by men, they had to care for (their) communities."
Ndangiza, who grew up a refugee in Uganda but came home after the genocide, said 64 percent of the seats in Rwanda's parliament were now held by women - a much higher proportion than in many African and developed countries.
"But despite this we don't feel we're there, we know there are still gaps ... we're not complacent," she said.
MEN AS ALLIES
Bringing men on board was a key component in successfully advancing the rights of Rwandan women, said Ndangiza, who is now the deputy chief executive officer of the Rwanda Governance Board – a state agency that licences political parties and assesses everything from civil liberties to corruption.
"(It's important to) treat men as allies rather than seeing them as people who are responsible for our situation," she said.
"Gender imbalances are societal challenges. They're the result of attitudes that might target women but these are not problems made by men."
Cooperation between men and women has brought some important changes in legislation, such as the revision of Rwanda's inheritance law which now allows women to inherit land and property, Ndangiza said.
"Before 1994 women couldn't inherit property from their parents and this made it all very difficult for women," she said.
Despite such progress and a constitution which enshrines gender rights, challenges remain. For example, women were still under-represented in science, technology and business in general, Ndangiza said.
The country still struggles with gender-based violence. Two in five women reported being victims of physical violence at least once since the age of 15, a 2010 government survey found.
In education, there are challenges too. Although enrollment of boys and girls in primary and secondary school is roughly the same, ensuring that girls stay in school and go on to receive a higher education is difficult.
"Right now in Rwanda the focus is on empowering the girl child. Let her have the best education, prevent her from getting pregnant too early ... so she can thrive from a young age," Ndangiza said.