Quantity or quality: impact of female leaders on women’s lives
Since the last parliamentary elections, Rwanda has been the first country in the world where women hold a majority in one of the chambers of parliament – with 56% in the chamber of deputies. There are also a good number of top female officials in the executive, whether as Ministers or heads of institutions.
While this is undoubtedly important for the progress towards gender equity in the country, it is less clear how such a representation is perceived by the citizens, notably ordinary women, and how it impacts their life. In the absence of a representative survey, it seems the answer depends on who you talk to.
For Mukabalisa, a 58-year-old resident of Kigali, having those women in politics does not benefit the ordinary women in any way. “When they are put in those positions, they don’t talk to the citizens to see what the reality is like,” she complains. “How then can you tell me it is better for the rest of the women? We still have our problems and struggles.”
Mukabalisa’s conclusion is clear: it makes no difference to have these women in leadership or not.
Hers is of course only one opinion among many, all of them subjective, ignoring either the advantages or the shortcomings of the current crop of female leaders. Getting an objective point of view is not an easy matter. “A proper tool for analysis is yet to be put in place,” confirms Edouard Munyamariza from the Rwanda Men’s Resource Center (Rwamrec), an organization that tries to get men involved in the fight for women’s emancipation.
Yet Munyamariza’s own view is rather nuanced, as he points out that it would be unrealistic to expect that the women in leadership have done everything perfectly to improve the lives of their fellow women. “It is obvious that there is room for improvement: some gaps to be filled and needs to be met,” he says, adding that these women leaders are still to be properly organized and work to address the needs of the citizens.
The first need to be addressed, it seems, is for the leaders to make themselves and their work better known. For instance, Vestine Ingabire, a fruits vendor, says she has no idea who the women in parliament are, and does not know the name of a single one of them.
“I don’t know them and I don’t see what difference they are making to my life,” she says, wondering just like Mukabalisa how a person can do something for her if they don’t know what she needs.
“I will not be just a spectator and sit around complaining about what is not going well; I want to make a difference and I know it is possible.” — Solange Uwineza, student
While it is true that these two women do not see a direct impact on their life, it cannot be denied that there are advantages to having such a representation of women in high positions. “The participation of women is the first step to empowerment and it leads to representation of women’s needs,” Munyamariza remarks.
For that to happen, better organization is still required. “Personally, I think it could be great if only the ones who are supposed to represent us did just that,” Mukabalisa says. “I mean, if they talked with us, then they would know what is needed and where to push for change.”
According to Senator Fatou Harerimana, there is indeed improvement in the understanding of leaders as to how to relate to the people. “In our program, we make time to go to the people and interact with them,” she says, and also pointing out that parliamentarians are also involved in other events and activities organized mostly through the National Women’s Council which goes down to the village level.
In addition, Harerimana points out that having women in the upper echelons of government should have a bigger impact than just representation.
“It should take away their fears and inspire them to aim for positions where they can bring about the change they desire, show them that they are able to do it,” the Senator explains.
That is how 17-year-old student Solange Uwineza sees it, saying that seeing so many women in parliament has opened her eyes as to the opportunities a girl can have in life. “I now know that I want to be part of the process of change affecting my life,” she says confidently. “I will not be just a spectator and sit around complaining about what is not going well; I want to make a difference and I know it is possible.”