Last month, Rwanda achieved something no other country had ever done before: produce a legislature in which women outnumber men. The results of last month's parliamentary elections gave women 45 out of the 80 seats in the chamber of deputies, or 56%. This surpasses Rwandan women's near parity in the outgoing parliament, already the highest proportion in the world. Rwandan President Paul Kagame praised the election results, saying that a female majority in parliament "emphasises the fact that the country's future is being shaped by women".
Only 14 years after the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has risen from the ashes to become a gender-equality trailblazer. Women enjoy many rights previously denied to them, including the right to own land, to open a bank account and to start a business. The government see women as critical partners to alleviate rural poverty and diversify the economy, moving from dependence on agriculture to a more knowledge-based one. To promote the role of women in politics, the constitution reserves 30% of the seats in parliament for women. The ruling party (Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF) placed many women at the top of its lists of candidates. It has also appointed numerous women to senior government posts. By March of this year, women held eight of 20 cabinet seats, including the foreign affairs portfolio.
However, a sombre second look at the politics of Rwanda's gender revolution reveals a less optimistic interpretation of the election results. First, the vote may have been quite free (on election day), but the elections were hardly fair. Only the ruling party, its coalition partners and two other pro-RPF parties ran in the elections. No one actually ran against the government. The government had previously banned credible opposition parties and jailed, exiled or even killed many of their leaders. The buried story of the elections is how undemocratic they actually were.
Second, even as women's visibility in politics is at an all-time high, their ability to shape the future of the country, ironically, has not improved. Rwanda's parliament has limited influence. Power is heavily concentrated in the hands of President Kagame and his close advisors. Parliamentarians – be they male or female – actually have very little power to legislate on behalf of their constituents. They have little room to develop policy or even to debate openly; space for free and open political expression is limited.
Third, female political representation and more progressive laws have not translated into a significant improvement in the lives of the poor. Some 90% of Rwandan women are peasants who rely on subsistence agriculture. Few have benefited from the country's progressive gender policies or relatively high rates of economic growth. The gap between the living standards of some wealthy urbanites and most rural dwellers is actually increasing. Post-genocide policies favour the urban elite, many of whom are Tutsi who returned to live in Rwanda after the genocide. The vast majority of Rwandan women (and men) who survived the genocide remain extremely poor, politically marginal and, in many cases, traumatised by what they lived through. Increasing levels of authoritarianism actually stifle any attempts to address growing inequalities.
This leads to a final point: female parliamentarians and cabinet ministers do not function independently of party politics. They do not, by virtue of their sex, automatically prioritise gender equality over the ruling party's political agenda. Rwanda's post-genocide government understandably seeks to maintain peace and security. It does so in part through a policy of national unity and reconciliation. It has banned references to ethnicity from public discourse: Rwanda is a land of all Rwandans and there no longer are any Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Though these are arguably laudable objectives, the government uses this policy as a tool to suppress dissent and silence criticism. The RPF expects parliamentarians and other public figures to toe the party line. Those who do not are accused of "ethnic divisionism" or promoting "an ideology of genocide" and relegated to the sidelines or worse, jailed or "disappeared". Even aid donors are loth to criticise the government, which does not hesitate to play the genocide guilt card against them.
The Rwandan government, representatives of the United Nations, western donors and feminist organisations celebrate Rwanda's milestone in women's parliamentary representation, claiming it is the result of enlightened attitudes and great vision. Such accounts gloss over these women's very limited role in policymaking, the continued marginalisation of the vast majority of Rwandan women, and the government's superficial commitment to democratic governance. In many ways, Rwanda's "gender revolution" serves as a smokescreen to distract critics from other pressing issues facing Rwandans. We should not confuse the largely symbolic achievements of gender equality with concrete progress in most women's lives, nor allow a gender lens to obscure recognition of the growing social and political inequalities in Rwanda under an often authoritarian and repressive government. The international community uncritically supported Rwanda's ethnic chauvinist government throughout the 1980s and early 1990s – with tragic results. It should not allow seemingly progressive gender policies to make it complicit in Rwanda's new politics of exclusion.
Erin Baines is an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia. Her research interests include local approaches to transitional justice, the politics of humanitarianism and forced displacement, and the study of gender, youth and armed conflict.
Susan Thomson worked in Rwanda as a human rights lawyer for many years. She is currently a PhD student at Dalhousie University. Her doctoral thesis analyses the effects of state power on ordinary people in post-genocide Rwanda.