Rwanda's women working together (or, everyone's got a Bono story)

Women’s empowerment in Rwanda is crossing the boundaries of ethnicity, class, education, geography and even wellness.

Yesterday, we met Yvonne Mutakwasuku, the mayor of a district called Muhanga just west of Kigali. A softly spoken Francophone, Yvonne has worked as a health and social worker with local authorities, NGOs and women’s groups for her entire career, and now has responsibility for a district of almost a million people. Her passion is for the welfare of the district’s poor, who largely rely on the overcrowded agricultural sector for their living. Just 12% of households in Muhanga district have electricity, and she cites this as the biggest dilemma in lifting people out of poverty and into small businesses and education.

Outside Yvonne’s office in an old municipal building, men gathered in the courtyard chatting and waiting for appointments under an anti-domestic violence poster depicting a woman in chains.

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Driving back east along well-paved, winding hilltop roads (the road is also the main route to Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura), we passed children carrying water, women bent double in fields of maize and rice, muddy man-made ponds in low lying fields that are being used as tiny fish farms, supported by aid, men fixing cars and orange-clad male prisoners – genocidaires and other criminals – working on verges and fencing.

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Bringing women together

Later in the day we visited Gahaya Links, where owners, sisters Janet Nkubana and Joy Ndungutse, design, manufacture and sell traditionally made baskets and jewellery made to Joy’s own design specifications.

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After the war the sisters, who grew up in Ugandan refugee camps, returned to Kigali and set up a hotel, where women came begging. They preferred to trade with the women and began to buy handmade baskets from them instead of giving cash handouts – most Rwandan women learn to make baskets as young girls.

Now, they employ over 4,000 women from all sides of the community in Rwanda. At the Gahaya Links factory, we met women who had been infected with HIV in the war, who are supporting orphans they took in after the genocide, and whose husbands were killed. The premises was a bequest from Janet’s mother, whose home it was for the last years of her life, and who taught basket weaving to many of the women. She died in 2010.

Women who lost families and women whose families committed the genocide sit side-by-side in airy rooms, making colourful beaded jewellery and traditional baskets. With her first pay cheque, every woman is required to purchase health insurance for her family, and the company knows the HIV positive women’s health needs and monitors their food intake and blood pressure during the working day, according to Janet.

Joy and Janet are formidable women. Their office has photos of them with luminaries including Bill Clinton. And, of course, Bono. Everyone’s got a Bono story.

Photos by Clare Keogh. Project supported by the Simon Cumbers Fund.