As we celebrate President’s Day here in the United States, I’m reflecting on how countries like Rwanda, Cuba, and Nicaragua have a higher percentage of women in political halls of power than we do.
At least, that’s the takeaway from a National Geographic story shared last week with those of us, including myself, who are blogging as part of the #WomensLives campaign. (“Women in Post-genocide Rwanda have helped heal their country.”)
I know. Rwanda isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of women in leadership roles, right?
Yet it is. The genocide was 20 years ago. Since then, women have made significant strides in Rwanda. Consider the following, from the National Geographic piece:
The most famous example of strides for Rwandan women came in 2008, when Rwanda became the first country ever to have a female majority in parliament. That same year, the legislature adopted a progressive law making domestic violence illegal and mandating harsh prison terms for rape.
“We don’t want to just make a law,” Judith Kanakuze, who led the bill’s drafting, said in a prescient 2005 interview. She wanted to change behavior—to stop men from beating their partners and stop women from tolerating the beating. Kanakuze saw the law as one element in a larger strategy to change cultural expectations that were dangerous for women.
In years prior, Rwanda’s parliament had passed pivotal laws enabling women to own land and daughters to inherit property. The legislature’s newly formed Forum for Parliamentary Women played a central role in both bills.
It’s easy to dismiss this as something endemic to 2008 or the byproduct of some horrific history, but the trend (that sounds too trivial a word for what is truly groundbreaking and amazing work for women’s rights) continues.
In subsequent elections, female members of parliament widened their margin. Last September they picked up even more seats and now hold 64 percent of them. Thirty percent is a given—the quota set in the post-genocide constitution to boost women’s representation throughout the government. Credit for pushing the percentage beyond that minimum goes primarily to the political parties, which placed women prominently on their candidate slates. Most influentially, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by President Paul Kagame, mandated that its lineup be 50 percent female.
Take a look at this chart to see how Rwanda fares against other countries, including the United States.
Eye-opening, isn’t it?
Of course, changing societal attitudes isn’t without challenges – and the article highlights those, too. As is to be expected, there are difficulties in reaching rural Rwandan women, which could be a factor in participation on the local level being at a much smaller percentage.
But overall, I see this as encouraging and – dare I say – perhaps as inspiration to those of us who may have become weary of wondering if we ever will see more women holding political office.
Especially that Oval one.