“Feminist Utopia” in Post-Genocide Rwanda? - Dismantling the Narrative Around Women’s Political Representation

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In recent years, Rwanda has received nothing but praise from international media for its gender policy. They applaud the country for its “realisation of a once utopian fantasy of female majority leadership” (The Guardian 2013) and attribute to Rwanda a “success story of women empowerment” (Huffington Post 2018). Indeed, the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi altered Rwanda’s demographic configuration so significantly that enhancing women’s role in all spheres of public life became necessary. While women and girls were certainly not spared from the extreme violence erupting throughout the country and resulting in the killing of an estimated 800,000 people between April and June 1994 (BBC News 2011), the majority of fatalities were male. In the genocide’s immediate aftermath, women therefore accounted for 70% of Rwanda’s population (Human Rights Watch 1996), making the promotion of their political, social and economic participation a precondition for successfully rebuilding the state. Among the transitional government’s subsequent efforts to enhance gender equality, the advancement of women’s political inclusion has emerged as Rwanda’s most notable accomplishment. The New Rwandan Constitution of 2003, which introduces a mandatory women’s quota of 30% in all decision-making organs, is considered the first milestone in this process (Rwanda’s Constitution of 2003, Art.9). Today, Rwanda’s Chamber of Deputies boasts the highest number of female parliamentarians worldwide, 67% as of the recent elections in September 2018 (All Africa 2018).

Despite such achievements, assuming a straightforward relationship between women’s increased political representation and substantial gains for Rwanda’s female population falls short of acknowledging the complex interplay of power, discourse and policy in the “increasingly authoritarian single party dominant state” (Bauer & Burnett 2013: 1) under the rule of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Considering the country’s political context, a wholesome analysis of women’s political representation should refrain from premature glorification of Rwanda as a feminist utopia. Instead, numerical gains in women’s political participation cannot be isolated from the state’s authoritarian nature and its frequent violations of basic human and civil rights (Human Rights Watch 2018). A feminist analysis must therefore engage with the underlying structures shaping women’s political participation in post-genocide Rwanda while assessing the instrumental power it has, in turn, in reinforcing these structures. Such an approach is not intended to belittle the agency and achievements of Rwanda’s female politicians, but aims at accommodating the paradoxical nature of women’s role in Rwandan politics: “as their participation has increased, women’s ability to influence policy making has decreased” (Burnet 2008: 363).

Yet, women’s political participation is not only limited by the state’s authoritarian structures, but also seems to reinforce these very same structures.

This paradox reflects the confluence of two seemingly contradictory trends: the greater political inclusion of women and the government’s discursive framing of gender equality as a promotion of human rights (National Gender Policy 2010) on the one hand, and the exclusion of “any form of political dissent” (Hogg 2009: 34) on the other.

Comprehending the instrumental value of women’s political representation in rebuilding the Rwandan state after the genocide and in consolidating the RPF’s dominance can dissolve the apparent tension between these parallel politics of inclusion and exclusion. Discourse analyses suggest a link between the transitional government’s efforts to promote national unity and reconciliation in the aftermath of the genocide and emphasizing the role of women in politics. By drawing on the essentializing terminology of difference feminism, increased political representation of women has been repeatedly associated with an improvement of the political climate (Uwineza & Pearson 2009 : 15). A maternal pacifism has been attributed to women, supposedly rendering them more peaceful and naturally less prone to violence than men (Herndon & Randell 2013: 70). The making of the woman representative as a peaceful and conciliatory subject then serves as a powerful tool in the discursive construction of national unity.
A second notable pattern is the conflation of gender equality with human rights and democratic transition in governmental discourses. Promoting gender equality is portrayed as the realization of a vision of a “united, democratic […] Rwanda”(National Gender Policy 2010: 2) and as a tool to “respect, protect and defend the human rights of all Rwandans” (The New Times 2010). Such rhetoric is contrasted by the political reality in which political dissent is frequently silenced through intimidation, marginalization or outright suppression of critical voices in politics, civil society and media- the 2017 presidential elections, for instance, were accompanied by arrests, detentions or forced disappearances of a number of opposition members, including the arrest of Diana Rwigara, a would-be independent candidate whose candidacy had before been declared invalid (Human Rights Watch 2018). Kagame’s two contestants in the presidential election, Frank Habineza from the Democratic Green Party and Philippe Mpayimana, an independent candidate, reported to have experienced harassment, threats and intimidation in the lead-up to the election (Human Rights Watch 2018). Given the critique that Rwanda is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state under the guise of democratization (Burnet 2008: 363), the reoccurring referral to gender equality in human rights discourses prompts the assumption that women’s political representation is being showcased to deflect national and international criticism.

At the same time, female civil society has witnessed a setback over the past two decades.

Apparently, however, the lack of political freedom imposes the same severe limitations on female politicians as on their male counterparts. Substantive legislative action on behalf of women’s issues seems to depend on whether it is disruptive to the RPF’s agenda or not. The 2009 Labor Law is one example for the subordination of women’s interests under governmental interests despite a female majority in parliament. By aiming at making Rwanda more investor-friendly, the law raised the work week to 45 hours, thereby significantly increasing the burden on working women who also commonly bear the duty of reproductive work (Bauer & Burnett 2013: 17).

At the same time, female civil society has witnessed a setback over the past two decades. During the transitional period, many of Rwanda’s most prominent and vibrant female leaders accepted government positions (Burnet 2008: 380) in which they either aligned with the political agenda of the RPF or were marginalized “for being outspoken on government policies” (Cooper-Knock 2016). For those who remained in civil society organizations, the political space became significantly more repressed with a 2001 legal act granting government authorities extensive control over the activities of national and international NGOs (Reyntjens 2004: 197).
Yet, women’s political participation is not only limited by the state’s authoritarian structures, but also seems to reinforce these very same structures. Critics have suggested that the quota regulation in its current form has served as an instrument to further bolster the RPF’s power (Cooper-Knock 2013; Renytjens 2004: 186). According to constitutional requirements, 24 out of 80 seats in Rwanda’s Chamber of Deputies are reserved for women who are selected by an electoral college of the National Women’s Council (NWC) (Cooper-Knock 2013). With the NWC being a government institution and, accordingly, under RPF-control, it is suspected that most quota positions are filled with RPF members or sympathizers, thus serving to lift into office those who subscribe to the government’s agenda (Renytjens 2004: 186). The women’s quota regulation, then, is at risk of being abused as a mechanism for further marginalization of the political opposition.

The women’s quota regulation, then, is at risk of being abused as a mechanism for further marginalization of the political opposition.

Uncovering these complexities points to the need to critically deconstruct the narrative of the “feminist utopia,” instead of further feeding it . Given the lack of political freedom, it is questionable whether women’s political participation can have substantive meaning. Instead it is important to recognize that as a reflection of the authoritarian structures it is embedded in, women’s political representation in Rwanda inevitably has to comply with and reinforce these structures to a certain extent. Acknowledging this complex interplay and the instrumental value of women’s political participation should therefore form the starting point for a more nuanced conversation on women’s role in Rwandan politics.

Hannah Reinl is a graduate student of International Development Studies with a focus on gender and development at Hebrew University Jerusalem.


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