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Rwandan Women Rising

Rwandan Women Rising

by Swanee Hunt

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In the spring of 1994, the tiny African nation of Rwanda was ripped apart by a genocide that left nearly a million dead. Neighbors attacked neighbors. Family members turned against their own. After the violence subsided, Rwanda's women—drawn by the necessity of protecting their families—carved out unlikely new roles for themselves as visionary pioneers creating stability and reconciliation in genocide's wake. Today, 64 percent of the seats in Rwanda's elected house of Parliament are held by women, a number unrivaled by any other nation. 
While news of the Rwandan genocide reached all corners of the globe, the nation's recovery and the key role of women are less well known. In Rwandan Women Rising, Swanee Hunt shares the stories of some seventy women—heralded activists and unsung heroes alike—who overcame unfathomable brutality, unrecoverable loss, and unending challenges to rebuild Rwandan society. Hunt, who has worked with women leaders in sixty countries for over two decades, points out that Rwandan women did not seek the limelight or set out to build a movement; rather, they organized around common problems such as health care, housing, and poverty to serve the greater good. Their victories were usually in groups and wide ranging, addressing issues such as rape, equality in marriage, female entrepreneurship, reproductive rights, education for girls, and mental health. 
These women's accomplishments provide important lessons for policy makers and activists who are working toward equality elsewhere in Africa and other postconflict societies. Their stories, told in their own words via interviews woven throughout the book, demonstrate that the best way to reduce suffering and to prevent and end conflicts is to elevate the status of women throughout the world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822362579
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Swanee Hunt chairs the Washington-based Institute for Inclusive Security. During her tenure as U.S. ambassador to Austria (1993–97), she hosted negotiations and symposia focused on securing peace in the neighboring Balkan states. She is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, CEO of Hunt Alternatives, and a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR and written for Foreign AffairsForeign Policy, the International Herald Tribune, Chicago TribuneLos Angeles Times, and Boston Globe, among other publications. She is the author of Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global SecurityHalf-Life of a Zealot, and This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace, all also published by Duke University Press.
Jimmy Carter was the thirty-ninth president of the United States. A Nobel Prize laureate and author of numerous books, President Carter is the founder of The Carter Center, which has worked for decades to resolve conflict, promote democracy, protect human rights, and prevent disease around the globe.

Read an Excerpt

Rwandan Women Rising

By Swanee Hunt

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6257-9



RUTAYISIRE: Terms like "gender," "equality," and "human rights" are Western-derived concepts that have a basis in the individualistic system and culture of the West. Traditional Rwanda had its own context and value systems.

Figuring out Rwandan traditions prior to the arrival of the German and then Belgian colonists in the 1880s is knotty, because little from that earlier time was written down. The newcomers often misinterpreted norms, hell-bent as they were on looking through European lenses and the infamously en vogue "science" on ethnicity, eugenics, and "inherent" superiority. Much of our understanding of customary roles has been passed down orally and is remembered today through Kinyarwanda expressions that often come up in interviews with elders, historians, women leaders, and others.

Division of labor rather than equality characterized traditional understanding of gender. Men and women fulfilled distinct functions within family and community, so the emphasis was on harmony rather than equality. Even when the government created a national gender policy, it framed its enlightened attitude by looking back. Compared to men, "women's roles were accorded proportionate value and considered to be complementary and indispensable."

Revered and Feared

JOY M. loves talking about her country — past, present, or future. In Rwandan tradition, women had backstage power. Within the kingdom, the queen mother was one of the most influential people in the country.

For centuries before the colonists arrived, women were feared and revered. Tutsi monarchs ruled Rwanda as a kingdom arranged in a hierarchy of chiefdoms. The German colonial administration, which lasted until after World War I, made the most of the power of the mwami, or king, and the chiefs that governed hill by hill countrywide. Men in the royal family and their ilk occupied nearly all top positions, but some esteemed women held high-ranking roles behind the scenes. Most significantly, a Tutsi king was never crowned alone. He shared authority with his mother or a stepmother. If the heir was young when he assumed the throne, the queen mother governed the kingdom.

Rwanda's history, passed on orally and often spun into illustrative or cautionary proverbs, includes queen mothers and female chiefs who ruled ruthlessly. Most infamous was Kanjogera, who became queen mother in 1895 alongside King Rutarindwa, born to another of her late husband's wives. Within a year of her husband's death, Kanjogera and her brother conspired to kill the new king and install her own teenage son on the throne. They would rule until 1931, more than a decade into the Belgian era. It was during this time that Belgian colonists created state-enforced political identities that institutionalized discrimination between Hutus and Tutsis based on a racialized ideology. The Belgians' depiction of Hutus as the indigenous Bantu race and Tutsis as the alien settlers sowed the seed for genocidal violence.

Divisive school lessons taught after independence described cold-blooded Kanjogera using her Hutu servants to support her spear as she lifted herself from her royal perch, the sharp point impaling their feet. Or her appetite for killing babies on a whim: supposedly the queen mother would say, "Ruhuga is thirsty" — using a pet name for her sword — and a baby would be brought before her and fed with milk just before she pressed Ruhuga into its belly. In a modern version, First Lady Agathe Habyarimana was given the nickname of Kanjogera for her clout in the Akazu group that would plan the genocide.

Some traditional Kinyarwanda sayings draw a connection between women leaders and a propensity toward violence, such as, "A domineering woman brings strife to the home" (Uruvuze umugore ruvuga umuhoro). Others portray women as strong (she can stop a snake from biting) but dangerous (she can take away an ability to resurrect the dead).

Certainly not all allusions to powerful women in these traditions are negative, and many people now emphasize a reverence for women. When discussing the origin of women's public leadership today, many people first describe the folktale of Ndabaga, the most famous female warrior.

Her father was a warrior protecting the king. When it was time for the elderly guard to leave his position, he didn't have a son to replace him. To save her beloved father from the death sentence expected in his situation, Ndabaga cut off her breasts. She shaved her head, and trained herself to run, jump, and shoot with a bow. Though her father was afraid when she presented herself to the king disguised as a young man, he was reassured when she competed against the boys and came out on top.

When the king eventually learned a female had put her life on the line to serve among his soldiers, he was not only astonished but also impressed, praising her bravery to protect her aged father. Her example challenged the perception that women aren't able to do a "man's job," soldiering. In fact, "Ndabaga" now refers to a desperate situation that calls for a quick wit and sacrifice. A group of female veterans bears her name.


CHRISTOPHE has vast appreciation for the power of women, beginning at home: The basis of our existence is the family. Men publicly make decisions, but if you don't compromise with your wife, it won't be carried out.

In the traditional family, the wife was honored for making the first imprint on children, instilling early values and teaching distinct expectations of girls and boys.

Motherhood and homemaking afforded women strong, unique social value, even if their influence and importance weren't openly lauded. Ambassador JOY M. describes the expression "Umukobwa ni nyampinga": It means that a woman goes beyond the hills and hamlets to get married to a different clan, thereby creating new alliances for her family.

Traditionally, you can't marry within your own clan, so marriage meant a union between two clans, who would now be relatives. In the psyche of the Rwandan there's still that idea of a woman bringing families together. Another implication of "nyampinga" is that a woman is compassionate and kind (normally) and would help even strangers.

A feud between families or clans would sometimes be resolved by exchanging brides. If she refused, they wouldn't force her, but it's not like the Western or modern tradition where you choose your partner. Wealth, influence, friendship, or assurance their daughter was going to be treated well — there were all kinds of considerations.

A new bride was given preferential treatment when she arrived at her husband's home, with in-laws fawning over her to optimize her ability to conceive. And, in glaring contrast to what in most places would be considered disgraceful, while a new baby was the goal, a woman's pleasure in the bedroom was a high priority. It's delightful to imagine aunts and uncles (separately) quietly tutoring soon-to-wed girls and boys in maneuvers to optimize female gratification.

A young wife was excused from her household work and given the family's best food to prime her body for pregnancy. Women were seen as the receptacle of life, explains Jesuit historian ELISEE. Once the baby was born, her sole focus was caring for her child while relatives took care of her.

Not only mothers but also wives were esteemed for their impact on their husbands — decision makers, thought leaders, and elders throughout the social and administrative hierarchy. They also shaped the views of their sons, who obviously would grow up to head their own families and communities. By many accounts, husbands were expected not to publicly announce a decision until they reached consensus with their wives. If the couple disagreed, family elders would weigh in.

Past shapes present. CHRISTOPHE was governor of Gitarama (now part of Southern Province) in central Rwanda. When you make a decision without consulting your wife, you have to be very diplomatic — negotiate with her so that she accepts it. In the democratic process or development process it's easier if the women are closely involved; we succeeded in every policy change we wanted in part because the ladies influenced their men.

Similarly, JANET draws a direct link between traditional appreciation of women and their rising influence in modern times. When Rwandans decided to have women in positions of leadership it was because the government realized what women were worth. ... Even during the precolonial era women's role was key. That said, women weren't given equal rights or opportunities outside of the home. Men started feeling superior, and they changed their minds about what women should be socially allowed to do.


ROSE M. describes what is a drastic situation worldwide: They said it was the husband's right to beat his wife. "Ah, he's correcting her; we shouldn't intervene." That's because there were no women in decision making, no women in Parliament, no women in government, no women. ... Only men made those laws.

While traditional Rwandan culture is sometimes touted — especially in today's parlance — as having been exceptional for valuing women's public influence, reality was marbled. In general, women were expected to defer to men or to provide their perspectives only through their husbands. They didn't speak in groups with men present, and girls were taught that it was polite to speak softly, or not express themselves at all in public settings. While the culture valued nonconfrontational behavior by all, the constraints on women were particularly strict. JOY M. notes how even in traditional ceremonies, even at their own children's engagement — an event about the union of two families — women don't talk.LOUISE's echo is typical. The culture didn't grasp the significance of what a successful young woman could do, and we learned to stay in the background, not to make noise about it.

At home, practical factors limited a woman's influence and reinforced the man's having final say. Women weren't allowed to own land, the fundamental source of wealth and social standing in this overwhelmingly agrarian country. Upon death, a man's property passed to his sons or brothers, leaving wife and daughters dependent on their male relatives. A woman with children was expected to marry one of her late husband's brothers (facilitated by polygamous marriages), keeping the children and the inheritance line within the marital family. If the woman had not borne children before the husband died, or the couple divorced, the wife had no entitlement to the family's land and would return, destitute, to her parents' home to await another proposal. Further, cultural restrictions against airing family matters prevented women from disputing land ownership.

Given the high regard for motherhood, it's not surprising that a woman unable to bear children was left in a precarious position within both the family and broader community. The common curse "May you die childless" (Uragapfa utabyaye) is considered the worst of all insults. In a childless couple, the woman was blamed first for the infertility, and the man was free to remarry. Divorce and remarriage or taking an additional wife were also acceptable outcomes should a woman give birth only to daughters — seen as inferior to male heirs who could inherit family assets, preserve the lineage, and support elderly parents.

With this dramatic power imbalance, it's not surprising that a culture of silence long surrounded domestic sexual violence in Rwanda, where men were understood to have the right to force sex with — that is, rape — their wives. These topics were taboo (apart from the coming-of-age tutorials from aunties); a woman who spoke about her experiences or didn't conform to society's expectations about virtuous sexuality, such as by having a child outside a committed relationship, was ostracized and sometimes punished by her father or her husband's family.


ODETTE remembers the possibility and the limits of growing up in her family, whom she would lose almost entirely in the genocide. My parents had eighteen children. We sisters tried hard to be like boys.

In this multidimensional look at traditional treatment of girls and women, the word "neglected" can't be avoided. Formal education, introduced under colonial rule in the early 1900s, drew a hard line between who was privileged and who wasn't, with opportunities based on newly cemented ethnicities that conveniently ignored muddling realities like intermarriage. Gender was high on the same sad list. The first schools were run by missionaries and admitted only boys.

Young Odette was up against dual challenges: a society that didn't yet see the value of women's roles beyond the home and a country that blatantly discriminated against citizens of her ethnicity. In Rwandese families, when a woman is giving birth only to girls, it is very badly regarded. When I finished secondary school, I told my father I wanted to go to university. He said, "My daughter, you don't know the country we're in. You'll never be Madeleine Ayinkamiye!" Appointed minister of social affairs in 1964, Madeleine Ayinkamiye was the first-ever female cabinet member in Rwanda (she served for about a year), and the last until 1992.

It wasn't until the 1940s that the first school to admit girls opened, with the sole focus on training nuns. (These women, the Benebikira sisters, were dauntless during the genocide and also in the rebuilding, but that comes later.) By the next decade, other girls' schools had opened, specializing in nursing and midwifery, or in the homemaking skills sought by young women preparing for marriage to elite men. The spread of Christianity further restricted the few roles women played in indigenous religion and public ceremony. And with the cementing of governance wholly dominated by men, women's standing in the colonial era was sabotaged.

Apart from the way accessibility to schools widened the chasm between women's entrenched position in the home and men's reach in pursuing various vocations, the deep power imbalance between males and females was set early. As a boy, I was enjoying life compared to my sisters.EMMANUEL recounts the memory with a chuckle, but also a nod of respect. My mother always knew what was needed around the house, and she passed on that awareness to my sisters. I could play outside with the other boys, but my sisters were expected at home, preparing food, even making my bed.

With a supportive father, Odette eventually broke through a series of obstructions to graduate from medical school. Many years later, she would defy her pragmatic father's prediction and rise to hold the same post as Minister Madeleine. ... But fresh out of university and twenty-one years old, opportunities were scarce, and given stiff traditions, educated women like her were met with skepticism.



FELIX: Culturally, it wasn't easy for women to move beyond family responsibilities. With the arrival of formal schooling, you'd find them as teachers or nurses, but very few politicians. Their involvement just wasn't a priority for society at the time, so there wasn't a political climate for including women — or, for that matter, any other people.

It's almost impossible for a reader — or writer — to comprehend the bravery of a woman carving her way through dense cultural mores, political structures, and a flank of power-hungry men. Leading up to the genocide, women were excluded, publicly slandered, mocked, and assaulted. Whether Hutu or Tutsi, taking an assertive stance on behalf of women's rights was not just discouraged. It could be fatal.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said to me that the most generous inmates of Auschwitz gave their crusts of bread to the boys and younger men who hadn't tasted many of the joys of life. The best among us didn't make it, he concluded.

And so this is a reminder that the stories of many of the justice-seeking women were crushed during the genocide. Although their narratives are not preserved here, their place in history must not be an unmarked grave. The women profiled in this book walked through a path others had cleared. Those described in these pages lived to tell the tale. Many did not.


Excerpted from Rwandan Women Rising by Swanee Hunt. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Timeline xi
Key Terms xvii
Biographies of Speakers xix
Foreword / Jimmy Carter xxix
Preface xxxiii
With Thanks xxxix
Introduction 1
Part I. Starting Places 19
1. Foremothers 24
2. The Pressure Builds 33
3. Stateless 44
4. To Arms 52
5. Genocide 58
6. Immediate Aftermath 70
Part II. The Path to Public Leadership 77
7. Community Training Ground 84
8. A Pull from the Top 93
9. Emboldened Ministry of Gender 107
10. Countrywide Women's Councils 114
11. Caucus Crucible 122
12. Fanning Out 129
13. A New Constitution 135
14. The Quota 140
15. Pioneering in Parliament 146
16. Spurring Local Leadership151
Part III. Bending toward Reconciliation 161
17. Bringing Them Together 165
18. Bringing Them Home 171
19. Rethinking Rape 182
20. To Testify 191
21. Off the Sidelines 199
22. Far beyond the Stats 206
23. Risk and Resignation 211
Part IV. Signposts 219
24. The Meaning of Marriage 223
25. Safety: A New Language 229
26. Challenging Changes 235
27. Unmasking Ambition 242
28. Health Means Whole 251
29. Every Body Matters 257
30. Thriving Progress 265
31. Little Ones 272
32. Reading Rights 278
Part V. Building the Road They're Walking 289
33. Solidarity and Sisterhood 293
34. Manning the Movement 299
35. Sowing Confidence 305
36. Flying High 314
37. Planting Deep 322
38. Charting New Pathways 331
39. Complements and Compliments 336
40. Coming Up 345
Epilogue 357
Notes 377
Index 385

What People are Saying About This

Ambassador Nicholas Burns

“Ambassador Swanee Hunt is a remarkable, passionate, and courageous public servant for our country and the world. Her commitment to women's rights, human rights, and human dignity is unsurpassed. In this timely new book, Rwandan Women Rising, Hunt uncovers lessons about how courageous women helped to rebuild a nation shattered by genocide. These are human stories worthy of our attention and admiration.”

Princeton Lyman

“This is an extremely valuable contribution to the understanding of peacemaking and peace building. It is a powerful account by Rwandan women who rose to reform their nation's society and government. They tell of their struggles, achievements, and still unfinished agendas. Ambassador Hunt draws on her extensive research and experience to provide a thoughtful analysis of women's roles in conflict and reconciliation, with lessons well beyond Rwanda. This book is a work of love for Swanee Hunt, who for decades has befriended, encouraged, and supported these women and others like them who have stood up to violence and advocated for peace.”

Zainab Salbi

"This is an excellent book! It is an honest, authentic, and thoughtful representation of how Rwandan women experienced the narratives of their lives and country. Swanee Hunt's unique voice and experience show how the story of one nation becomes meaningful and applicable to the rest of the world. This is a page-turner and an essential read for anybody interested in social change and women’s rights beyond Rwanda."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

“As Director of the Africa Bureau of the United Nations Development Program, I had the sad experience of visiting Rwanda after the genocide. Women with families torn apart bore their suffering with strength as they organized to be the catalyst for their country's renewal. Today, 64 percent of Rwanda's Parliament are women, and they provide exceptional leadership in regional institutions. For a dozen years, Swanee Hunt and I have been finding ways to raise the voices of women in my country. Rwandan Women Rising is a new guidebook for a journey toward justice, a journey beyond Liberia that holds the promise of global change, empowering women to create a more secure world for us all.”

President Jimmy Carter

"In these pages we hear the heartbeat of [Rwandan] society. We listen to the mothers. We hear from politicians and businesswomen. We watch those running the local reconciliation courts that were at the grassroots of society. We follow their halting advances at the helm in hamlets and in the capital. We explore how Rwanda has become the standard-bearer in female political representation . . . Since I came to know Swanee Hunt in the early 90s, we’ve crossed paths on different continents and across decades as we’ve worked together on free elections, against corruption, toward independent media, and for decent health conditions. . . . Over the years, I have taken pride in watching Swanee fight for recognition of the fact that true security must be inclusive."

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