“Is Political Representation Enough to Improve Women’s Rights? The Rwanda Paradox Proves Otherwise”

Angelique  Twagiramungu,  a  participant  of  the leadership and public speaking training  and  member  of  the  National  Women`s  Council  in  Rwanda.  Photo:  UN  Women

Rwanda has the highest percentage of female parliamentary participation in the world. Yet, many women leaders still find their competency questioned and their political influence limited.  Photo: UN Women

In today’s world, where women are still severely underrepresented in politics, electing and appointing more women to high-ranking government positions is often presented as a direct path towards advancing women’s rights. Yet, in contrast to this idealistic notion, increasing women’s representation does not automatically ensure better living conditions for the majority of women and girls in the country, nor does it mean that female leaders will be readily accepted into their new roles by their male counterparts and society at large. Such resistance is often the case in developing countries where traditional gender norms persist, and women are discouraged from participating in the public sphere.

Take Rwanda for instance. Despite having the world’s highest percentage of female representation in government, most Rwandan women still do not enjoy equal rights or treatment, and women leaders struggle to exercise true political influence. This discrepancy between women’s political representation and women’s actual rights has been fittingly referred to as the “Rwanda Paradox.” Surveying the challenges Rwandan women continue to face in daily life reveals that advancing women’s rights involves much more than simply involving them in political processes.

Rwandan Women Rebuilt the Country Post-Genocide

Women’s high political participation in Rwanda today is intrinsically tied to national efforts to remedy enduring trauma from the 1994 genocide. This dark period in the country’s history saw the perpetration of horrific gender-based violence (GBV) against women. According to Human Rights Watch, both Tutsi and Hutu women were victims of individual rape, gang rape, sexual enslavement, and sexual mutilation. The exact number of rapes remains unknown, but reports indicate that women were systematically and brutally raped on a large scale. An estimated 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the genocide, including as many as three quarters of the entire Tutsi population.1 The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) prosecuted rape as a war crime and convicted individuals of genocide for the first time in history.

Since the genocide, women made up 70% of the population and have led the country’s recovery, abandoning their traditional roles to join politics in unprecedented numbers.2 In 2003, President Kagame amended the Rwandan constitution to set a 30% quota for women in elected positions.3 The Borgen Project reports that today women hold over 60% of parliamentary seats in Rwanda, more than any other country in the world.4

Political Participation Doesn’t Equal Political Influence

Despite this significant progress in representation, Rwandan women leaders still find their competency and capabilities questioned, limiting their true political influence. Claudette Mukamana, District Vice Mayor, describes women’s continued struggle to be taken seriously in politics, explaining, “When people see you holding any of those [elected] positions as women, the very first question asked by everyone is: Will she be able to perform her duties? Is she capable of holding such a position?”5 Women are often accused of only entering public service to “meet men,” subjecting them to increased risk of domestic violence by mistrusting husbands who already resent their wives’ reduced presence at home.6A lack of personal finances to subsidize campaigns also continues to prevent female candidates from running for Parliament.

Increasing women’s political participation is simply not enough; attention must be paid to counter persisting gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes that consider men better political leaders. Current gender training led by UN Women must continue developing women’s leadership skills, highlighting the unique talents and expertise women bring to the decision-making table and discussing available resources to help women and their families cope with the public scrutiny associated with political careers. 

Persisting Obstacles to Women’s Equality

Women’s Access to Formal Education

In addition to the obstacles women leaders continue to face, Rwandan women at large remain marginalized in a patriarchal society that fails to translate political participation into actual advancements for women’s rights. One area requiring further attention is women’s access to formal education.  Despite passage of the 2008 Girls’ Education policy outlining interventions to increase girls’ access, retention, and completion at all levels of education,7 various obstacles have made these initiatives less effective. These obstacles include adolescent pregnancy related dropouts, lack of sanitation facilities, and societal attitudes discouraging women from studying male dominated fields that all continue hampering government initiatives. Similarly, while the promotion of private education has made it possible for more Rwandan women to access formal education through evening programs,8 women’s additional responsibilities as mothers and caretakers reduce their ability to pursue other endeavors. This trend, often referred to as time poverty, remains an ongoing barrier to women’s completion of formal education. Necessary steps to achieve further progress must include offering family planning and support for mothers, securing shipments of contraceptives to be freely distributed, and constructing new and improved girls’ sanitation facilities at schools. These steps are essential to increase female retention at all levels of education and gradually work to challenge prevailing societal attitudes barring women from entering male dominated fields.

Support for Victims of GBV

Another area in which women’s rights are still significantly lacking is access to resources and support for victims of gender-based violence. The Rwandan government passed legislature establishing zero-tolerance of GBV, providing legal sanctions against GBV perpetrators, and criminalizing rape of men and women and spousal rape.¹⁰ In practice, however,  persisting societal attitudes stigmatizing rape and GBV continue to punish victims and discourage them from reporting abuse. The UN Office in Rwanda reports that GBV still affects 37% of households in Rwanda today.11 Female rape survivors who have borne illicit children as a result of the genocide are particularly ostracized by their communities.12 Disabled women are at greater risk of experiencing GBV through domestic violence, emotional abuse and sexual assault.13 The imperative to better attend to the needs of GBV survivors is thus overwhelmingly clear.

The answer may lie in investing greater resources in Isange One Stop Centres across the country. Originally initiated by the Rwandan government and UN in 2009, the One Stop Centre model utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to provide GBV survivors with medical, legal, forensic investigation, psychosocial, and safety support.14 The word ‘Isange’ means ‘to feel at home’ in Rwanda’s official language Kinyarwanda, signifying that the centers are places of refuge and support where victims can receive treatment and protection.15 Between 2015 and 2018, the One Stop Centres served over 49,000 victims of GBV and trained over 500 legal advocates and security officers to better understand and respond to cases of GBV.16 Capitalizing on the success of this model and establishing more centers across the country would advance Rwanda’s national priority to end gender-based violence. Moreover, in an effort to counter GBV, the Rwandan National Women’s Council should continue utilizing ‘Umugoroba w’ababyeyi,’ or ‘Parents’ Evening’ programming, that brings men and women together to promote conflict resolution and discourage domestic violence and child abuse in families.¹⁷ The Netherlands-backed UN Development Assistance Plan, which currently reaches over 1.2 million Rwandan citizens on community media platforms to spread awareness of GBV, should also be expanded upon.¹⁸ Given that GBV often occurs in remote communities where outreach remains difficult, additional efforts to modernize infrastructure and technology is necessary to help connect rural women with resources and support to combat GBV. 

The Isange One Stop Centre (IOSC) model has achieved great strides in combating gender-based violence (GBV) in Rwandan communities. Photo: UN Rwanda.

Umugoroba w’ababyeyi, or ‘Parents’ Evening’ programming, brings Rwandan men, women, and occasionally children together to discuss challenges faced by families. The initiative has seen positive results in conflict resolution, savings culture, declining child and domestic abuse, and family planning. Photo: The New Times

Land Ownership

Lastly, Rwandan women still face significant obstacles in exercising land ownership and property rights. The gendered phenomenon of the “triple day” in which women are tasked with balancing their roles as mothers, caretakers, and producers makes time poverty a particularly rampant issue among Rwandan women who are often kept at home to perform unpaid subsistence agricultural labor. 82 percent of women in Rwanda work in the agricultural sector to feed themselves and their families.19 However, prevailing patrilocal traditions reserving land ownership and inheritance rights to men still prevent Rwandan women from owning land today, meaning many never receive any income from their harvests.20 Additionally, public health concerns including high rates of HIV and AIDS are particularly prevalent among women and often impede educational and professional aspirations, limiting women’s ability to contribute to the formal political economy. With women still struggling to exercise basic legal rights, clearly the empowerment of women leaders in the Rwandan parliament is not representative of the status of Rwandan women overall.


The Rwanda Paradox thus puts on full display the dangers of increasing women’s representation without equally addressing persisting gendered obstacles and stereotypes that continue to marginalize women, both in political circles and everyday life. While Rwanda appears an egalitarian, pro-feminist model to the rest of the world, the situation for Rwandan women is starkly different. Increasing women’s political representation alone will never be enough to advance women’s rights; it must be followed by extensive efforts to ensure that representation reflects women’s actual social status in practice. Until this discrepancy is resolved, women will never truly be empowered.

By Katrina Mulherin

Work Cited:

[1] “The Silenced Women of the Rwandan Genocide and their Fight to be Heard,” UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog, 26 Sept. 2017, https://sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2017/09/26/silenced-women-rwandan-genocide-fight-heard/.

[2] “Rwanda’s Genocide: Human Rights Abuses Against Women,” Human Rights Watch, 24 Sept. 1996, https://www.hrw.org/news/1996/09/24/rwandas-genocide-human-rights-abuses-against-women.

[3] “The Status of Women’s Rights in Rwanda,” The Borgen Project, 2 Oct. 2020, https://borgenproject.org/womens-rights-in-rwanda/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Revisiting Rwanda five Years After Record-Breaking Parliamentary Elections,” UN Women, 13 August 2018, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2018/8/feature-rwanda-women-in-parliament.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Rwanda CEDAW,” United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, 5 Oct. 2015, 10, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fRWA%2f7-9&Lang=en.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 12-13.

[10] “Rwanda 2017 Human Rights Report,” United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 35, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Rwanda.pdf.

[11] “Rwanda’s Holistic Approach to Tackling the Different Faces of Gender-Based Violence (GBV),” United Nations Rwanda, 30 August 2019, https://rwanda.un.org/en/15872-rwandas-holistic-approach-tackling-different-faces-gender-based-violence-gbv.

[12] Jonathan Torgovnik,  Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape (Aperture, 2009), https://www.torgovnik.com/BOOKS/Intended-Consequences—Aperture/thumbs

[13] Esther Favour, “GBV: Activists Call for Inclusivity of People Living With Disability,” The New Times, 3 Dec. 2022, https://www.newtimes.co.rw/article/3264/news/health/gbv-activists-call-for-inclusivity-of-people-living-with-disability.

[14] “Rwanda’s Holistic Approach.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Donah Mbabazi, “Umugoroba w’ababyeyi: A Village Roundtable Programme Transforming Communities, The New Times, 27 May 2015, https://www.newtimes.co.rw/article/119223/Lifestyle/umugoroba-wababyeyi-a-village-roundtable-programme-transforming-communities.

[18] “Rwanda’s Holistic Approach.”

[19] Lisa Strube, “Women and their Access to Land–Gender Discrimination in Rwanda’s Land Law,” africanlegalstudies.blog, University of Bayreuth, 10 Dec. 2021, https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/12/10/women-and-their-access-to-land-gender-discrimination-in-rwandas-land-law/.

[20] Ibid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s