Gender Balance and the Meanings of Women in Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda


Burnet, Jennie. 2008. "Gender Balance and the Meanings of Women in Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda." African Affairs 107 (428): 361-86.

Author: Jennie Burnet


Across Africa, many countries have taken initiatives to increase the participation and representation of women in governance. Yet it is unclear what meaning these initiatives have in authoritarian, single-party states like Rwanda. Since seizing power in 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front has taken many steps to increase the participation of women in politics such as creating a Ministry of Gender, organizing women’s councils at all levels of government, and instituting an electoral system with reserved seats for women in the national parliament. This article explores the dramatic increase in women’s participation in public life and representation in governance and the increasing authoritarianism of the Rwandan state under the guise of ‘democratization’. The increased political participation of women in Rwanda represents a paradox in the short term: as their participation has increased, women’s ability to influence policy-making has decreased. In the long term, however, increased female representation in government could prepare the path for their meaningful participation in a genuine democracy because of a transformation in political subjectivity.


Keywords: post-conflict governance, post-conflict reconstruction, women's political participation


In her article, Burnet examines the increased percentage of women in positions of political leadership in Rwanda in the years following the 1994 genocide. Before the 1994 civil war, women had seldom held positions in the nation’s parliament. Between 1994 and 2003, however, the number of women in Rwanda’s government increased dramatically as a result of President Kagame’s effort to integrate women into the post-conflict reconstruction process. While the Rwandan Patriotic Front imposed quotas that made Rwanda the country with the highest percentage of women in its government in 2003, this gender equality on the political level did not implicate genuine female empowerment. Rather, the RPF’s introduction of women into positions of political leadership served to cover up the party’s authoritarianism and human right’s abuses as well as a way to gain praise from the international community.

In the years following the genocide, not only did women’s political representation skyrocket, but the number of women’s organizations also increased dramatically. Scholars cite four main reasons for the proliferation of women’s organizations: the extreme crisis that women faced following the genocide, the history of women’s grassroots organizations in the country, economic aid from the international community, and the Rwandan government’s policies. The RPF’s ideology also played into the drastic increase in women’s NGOs’s in the late 1990s. Burnet explains that RPF saw civil society as an intrinsic part of the state; thus, the regime encouraged the development of local organizations that promoted the stated goals of the national government.

The congruence between women in civil society and in government was affirmed in 1999 when the government passed “the Inheritance Law,” which gave women the legal right to inherit property, among other benefits, such as paid employment and contract rights; however, this promotion of women’s rights did not entail democratic values in the country’s politics. Members of the national government continued to be appointed by RPF leaders rather than elected by the public. In addressing the question of why, if the country was not a true democracy, the regime allowed the Inheritance Law to pass, Burnet writes that the RPF saw the legislation as a necessary step in protecting the rights of genocide widows and that the women’s NGOs that had formed worked in cohesion to manipulate the state and support the policy.  The major presence of women in Rwanda’s government also allowed female decision-makers to influence government policy. In analyzing the success of women in passing the legislation, Burnet concludes that “limited forms of democratic participation are possible under an authoritarian government” (378).

In the latter half of her article, Burnet assesses the situation of women in Rwanda today, arguing that it has not improved despite the participation of women in the nation’s governance. She writes that the women’s movement in Rwanda has been set back because the leaders of women’s NGOs have abandoned their civil society work to take government positions, leaving the organizations with weak leadership. Additionally, women’s organizations have not been able to rally around a single issue, which has undercut the unity of the women’s movement. Increased female participation in government has also had other negative consequences. Leaders of women’s NGOs in Rwanda view female politicians in the RPF as traitors to the women’s movement, which has weakened the cooperation between civil society and the state in promoting women’s rights, and some argue that the RPF has also carried out female-friendly policies merely as a way to further its own political agenda.

Burnet concludes that while women in Rwanda may not immediately benefit from the political and legal rights granted to them by the RPF, advancements in gender equality may develop in the long-term. As Rwanda’s culture continues to develop, women’s identities will change, affording them greater agency as an accumulation of their political, legal, and social rights. The incorporation of women into Rwanda’s government has changed public perceptions of women positively, paving the way for freedom in other areas of their lives. Post-genocide reconstruction has also necessitated the active participation of women in infrastructure projects, farming tasks, and other household and government roles. Thus, while the genocide confronted women with the difficulty of handling these new tasks without the help of their deceased male counterparts, it entailed a complete disruption of conventional gender relations, which provided offered women an opportunity for more robust political and social roles.

Topics: Civil Society, Gender, Women, Gender Roles, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Governance, NGOs, Peacebuilding, Peace Processes, Post-Conflict, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Rights, Women's Rights, Security Regions: Africa, Central Africa, East Africa Countries: Rwanda

Year: 2008

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