Getting to grips with Rwanda’s complex gender quotas


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Our Western images of Africa are of colourful women with babies on their backs, not business suit-clad women with laptops. They’re of starving children, not well-fed men about town sipping lattes in indigenous coffee chains that bear striking resemblances to Costa or Starbucks, but with better food.

This is Kigali.

We’re here to research the success of Rwanda’s women politicians, and today, by way of background research, we met some interesting members of Rwanda’s twitterati, Harvard-educated businesswoman Lucy Mbabazi and newspaper editor Fred Mwasa.

The chats we had were great for context and explaining some of the more complex structures of the Rwandan electoral system.

It’s almost 20 years since the Rwandan genocide and framing the country’s political and electoral system can only be done in the context of the divisions that pre-existed, caused, and in some ways survived it.

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After the genocide the population was 70% women, and now the majority of the country’s approximately 10 million people are under 30. While gender balance has been addressed, representation of Rwanda’s youthful population is an issue for some.

‘The land of a thousand hills’ has the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in the world, at 56%. It has a bicameral parliament like that in Ireland, with a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate. 30 of the Chamber of Deputies’ 80 seats are reserved for women, and of the remaining 50 deputies, elected from universal suffrage through a party list system, 30% must be women. The ruling party, President Paul Kagame’s RPF, holds the vast majority of seats.

Reserved seat candidates are elected through the traditional administrative system (introduced by the Belgians) that flows upwards from villages, through cells, sectors and districts. The women in each village elect representatives who then go forward for election upwards through the ranks.

There’s a distinct feeling among the population that the reserved seat women are not expert enough in their field and may not have the requisite political experience to represent them at national level, according to Fred Mwasa. I’ll be meeting the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies later this week. She’s a former activist with a women’s group who was elected through the reserved seating system so I’m looking forward to her views on that particular assertion.

There has been some debate recently, according to Mwasa, about reforming this system to make it more competitive.

Whether the quotas have made the political system more attuned to women’s needs in terms of issues like maternity leave, is up for debate.

Other aspects of the system in Rwanda have quotas too, including government organisations which must also have 30% women employees. The cabinet, which is appointed by the president from political parties and independent groups and weighted towards the RPF, is made up of 30% women, who include impressively qualified candidates like Dr Agnes Binagwaho, a medical doctor who has been a lecturer at Harvard and is keen to implement best practice in the country’s health system.

(As an aside: an English lady we met in our hotel yesterday had injured her ankle and for the princely sum of $20 was in and out of hospital in an hour with an X-Ray, cast and crutches. An article in one of the national dailies today highlighted the fact that Rwanda is now a destination for medical tourism.)

The country’s 26 Senators are appointed in a way not unlike ours, with a hotch-potch of candidates elected by what Mwasa calls “marginalised groups”, university lecturers, provincial electoral colleges, Presidential appointment, and a political party consultative forum. They seem to be regarded in roughly the same way as Irish senators…

Tomorrow, we’ll meet Juliana Kantengwa, a deputy in the parliament who is also a member of the Pan-African parliament and has worked in women’s rights. I’m looking forward to hearing her views on quotas and their effect on Rwandan society. We’re also hoping to visit the Nyamirambo Women’s Group tomorrow, for a tour of their projects in one of the city’s most diverse areas, home to a bustling market, two mosques and miles-long streets of tightly packed, colourfully painted shops and businesses with names like Top Shop Star… And for a chat about their thoughts on gender quotas.

Photos by Clare Keogh

Our visit to Rwanda is supported by Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Fund.

I’ve made some changes to this post since it was published – thanks Fred for your assistance!

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