BY: SAVANNAH ESTRIDGE
In Rwanda the rate of violence against women, in particular sexual, physical, economic, and psychological violence, remain high. According to UN Women’s Global Database on Violence Against Women, 34 percent of women experience “physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and 21 percent experienced it within the last year”. Although levels of conflict and security in the country are low, Rwanda’s peace and security should not only be determined by the level of current military conflicts, but also by rates of violence against women. Many people believe that conflict in the country has reduced significantly because there is less tension between racial groups since the end of the genocide in 1994. According to Valerie Hudson in “The Heart of The Matter: The Security Of Women And The Security Of States,” “Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test,” making gender relations more of an indicator of the security of a state than race. It is, thus, important to consider violence against women as an indicator of conflict, rather than just evaluating conflicts through the lens of military conflicts and race relations.
If women have such broad representation in the government, why is GBV so prevalent? Women in the Rwandan government are not working towards women’s interests, primarily because they aim to serve Kagame’s interests as opposed to serving the women of Rwanda. While institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund regard Kagame as the savior of Rwanda, others view him as a dictator. He recently amended the constitution to permit himself to serve a third term (a common sign of a transition into an authoritarian state) and ended up winning with 98 percent of the votes. Kagame has consistently used tactics of fear and oppression to silence his opposition, and representatives in government often pay a heavy price if they choose not to support his policies. According to Newsweek, “Nine out of the eleven registered political parties have said they would back Kagame instead of fielding their own candidates.” Kagame has, in essence, made it difficult for politicians to stand for women’s rights if their efforts don’t follow his agenda.
The first woman who ran for president as an independent was Diane Shima Rwigara. In an interview with News Deeply, she stated, “I don’t believe in the lie being sold to the world that Rwandan women have a voice – we don’t. We’re only allowed to do or say certain things as dictated by the ruling party. If you don’t, you pay a high price.” She was disqualified from the presidential race and also suffered harassment, allegedly at the hands of the RPF, who denied the allegations. Some supporters of Rwigara were jailed and threatened by the police, fake nude photos were spread of her, and her family’s bank businesses were shut down.
As Kagame continues to gain power, and Rwanda evolves into an authoritarian state, there will be no way to promote women’s rights if such rights go against his political agenda. With the harassment of anyone who dissents, we cannot expect women’s rights and security to be respected. The Global Gender Gap Index’s score for Rwanda is profoundly misleading, and as long as women serve Kagame over their own constituents, women in the country will continue to suffer.
Savannah Estridge is a research intern at Amnesty International. She previously served as a human rights researcher and community activist at Embrace Dignity in Cape Town, South Africa. Savannah was also a community youth empowerment facilitator in the Peace Corps. She is currently pursuing her Master of Science in Global Affairs at New York University.
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