Jenevieve Mannell, Institute for Global Health, University College London
Rwanda is a country of contradictions. In 1994 Rwanda experienced one of the worst genocides of the 20th century and yet has emerged as a poster-child for economic development and stability. It has the highest number of women in parliament anywhere in the world, however, feminism is still seen as a Western concept irrelevant to the lives of many Rwandan women. Gender-based violence and marital rape are illegal (which is not the case in neighbouring DRC or Uganda), and yet over 40% of women believes that a man has the right to beat his wife under certain circumstances.
Such contradictions can be a sign of progress where social changes are merely steps towards an ultimate goal that has yet to be achieved. Or they can reflect deeper problems. They can be evidence of a lack of political will for the types of changes that improve lives and a signal of someone who wants to maintain a grip on power.
The government of Rwanda, led by Paul Kagame, has been widely criticised for increasing authoritarianism and repression of any form of political opposition. Kagame has been in power since 1994. In 2015 he made a reform to the constitution that allowed him to seek a third term in office. During the subsequent elections in 2017, several potentially viable presidential candidates were rejected from the elections, such as Diane Shima Rwigara, the country’s only female candidate. A few days after Rwigara announced her candidacy, nude photos of her were leaked online in a smear campaign. This is a minor offense in comparison to the more violent ends that several political opponents of Kagame have faced, including Patrick Karegeya who was mysteriously strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel in early 2017.
Despite these legitimate concerns over assassination attempts and the undermining of democratic processes more broadly, Rwanda under Kagame has effectively brought about many positive social change for people’s everyday lives. This creates a complex picture. Women in Rwanda have more choice in their lives than their mothers and grandmothers did. In 1999, Rwanda put in place a new inheritance law ensuring that both men and women could equally own and inherit property. While this may seem quite ordinary in Western countries, it radically shifted the status of women in Rwanda from servants in a family’s home to land owners and proprietors. Ten years later in 2009, Rwanda introduced a gender-based violence bill that made it illegal to inflict physical or sexual violence on another individual, and threatened perpetrators with jail time. Again, this shifted the balance of power between men and women, challenging the generally accepted idea that women needed to be kept in line with physical abuse. One of the most radical changes has been that the property owned by a couple is now equally divided between the husband and wife in cases of divorce. This has made it easier for women to leave violent relationships and in turn holds men to account for how they treat their wives.
Authoritarianism inherently threatens democratic principles and processes, but it also gets things done. In 2009, the government of Rwanda implemented a policy mandating each village community (known locally as umudugudu) to establish a gender-based violence committee or ‘GBV committee’ to deal with local cases of domestic violence. This type of comprehensive, community-based policy is largely unheard of in other parts of the world and shows a tremendous commitment by government to addressing the high rates of intimate partner violence in the country. The very strict regulations that guide everyday lives in Rwanda also means that the policy is widely implemented and that the 14,000+ umudugudu now report on the number of instances of domestic violence occurring in their community and what they have done about them. However, contradictions appear in the types of actions taken by GBV committees. The committees can use some unusual strategies, such as publicly shaming men who beat their wives. Others advise women to marry their abusive partners as a means of ensuring they are protected under the law, but also because marriage is seen as a means of reducing the violence. Gender based violence is often seen by community members as something that affects men and women equally, which undermines a recognition of how women are more vulnerable to violence from an intimate partner and its impacts (1).
Moreover, not everyone sees the increasing freedoms for women as a positive change in Rwandan society. While women in today’s Rwanda have more freedoms than they once did, this is often seen as perpetrating higher rates of divorce and lower rates of marriage. Couples often choose not to get formally married, and divorce or separation in a largely patriarchal society can lead women and children without an income or family support. Some men see women’s increasing freedom as part of the problem, including what they perceive to be an increasing number of women who go to bars and drink alcohol (which remains largely socially unacceptable for women).
Resistance to the changes that are taking place for women and misunderstandings of the causes of domestic violence have been a major theme running throughout my own research in Rwanda over the past five years. During a series of focus groups we conducted in 2014, a group of men from one umudugudu told a story of a man who was being held by the police in a local jail for beating his wife. Very shortly after the beating, the wife shows up at the jail to ask the police to release her husband. The police ask her why she would want him to be released given her obvious injuries. They also ask her who had started the fight to which she responded ‘I started it’. Based on this, the police decided to release the husband and put her in jail instead. There is a certain logic to this reaction by the police if you believe that men and women are equally responsible for creating the conditions that lead to acts of violence and that it is the instigator who should be punished rather than the individual committing the act. However this logic is rarely applied in other situations where the gender of the victim is not a factor – a murderer would never be released if it came to light that the man he had killed had started the fight that had led to his murder. The choice by the police to punish the victim of the violence is yet another example of how gender inequalities are not being challenged in Rwanda, despite well-meaning gender based violence policies.
The case of modern Rwanda can teach us many things. It shows us that an authoritarian regime can bring about radical social changes for women, but that this does not necessarily change gender inequities. It shows that international donors are willing to forego their principles of democracy and human rights when a country appears to be doing the right things for economic development. And it shows that its violent past should never be used to define Rwandan society or culture. The genocide of ’94 often frames any discussion of Rwanda and this has obscured both our critique and our ability to learn from the country’s contradictions today.
1. Mannell J, Dadswell A. Preventing Intimate Partner Violence: Towards a Framework for Supporting Effective Community Mobilisation. J Community Appl Soc Psychol. 2017 Jan 1;27(3):196–211.
Biography: Jenevieve Mannell is a Lecturer at the Institute for Global Health, University College London and has been doing research in Rwanda since 2012. She trained as a community health psychologist, and has a PhD in Gender Studies from the London School of Economics. Her current research focuses on efforts by marginalised communities to address health issues in low and middle income countries, including gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS, and discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities. Over the past 15 years, she has lived and worked in Bangladesh, South Africa, Canada, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and the UK. Jenevieve has active research collaborations with community-based organisations in Rwanda, Peru and Afghanistan.