ditor’s note: This post is an update of an earlier story, from the Invisibilia podcast and program, which is broadcast on participating public radio stations.

In what countries are women and men on the most equal footing?

That’s a question that the World Economic Forum considers in its annual Global Gender Gap Report. Countries are ranked for the degree of women’s participation in the economy, their educational achievements, their health and their political involvement.

Iceland is number one, followed by Norway, Finland, Rwanda and Sweden. Yes, Rwanda, this year as in past years, is the only African country in the top ten. The U.S., by contrast, comes in at number 49.

Why does Rwanda do so well in these rankings? And how does the issue of gender equality play out in daily life.

The answer: When it comes to the roles of men and women, Rwanda is a complicated place.

If you want to understand why, a good place to start is with the story of Mireille Umutoni.

In high school, Mireille aspired to be a club president rather than just secretary. And why not? After all, she lives in a country where women seem to face no barriers, no discrimination.

In the parliament, for example, women hold more than half the seats. No country has a better record than that.

There’s just one problem: Even though Rwanda is arguably one of the most pro-woman countries in the world, feminism is not seen as a good thing. In fact, it’s something of a dirty word.

In high school, Mireille found that teachers and students took for granted that the head of a club should be a boy. When she would stand up in front of her class and ask, “Why can’t the head be a girl?” they would tell her, “That’s for Americans. You’re trying to be an American.”

Being “American” was shorthand for being too aggressive, too liberated, too selfish. The message was clear: You’re doing this for yourself, not for the good of your country. “They’d say, ‘You don’t belong in Rwanda,’ ” Mireille recalls. ” ‘You don’t even belong in Africa!’ ”

And when she did finally become head of a club — the debating club in her all-women’s college — she faced another struggle: Could she and her team members succeed in the male-dominated world of collegiate debate?

Before considering Mireille’s situation, we need to look at the Rwanda of 1994.

How the genocide changed gender roles

Following 100 days of slaughter that year, Rwandan society was left in chaos. The death toll was between 800,000 and 1 million. Many suspected perpetrators were arrested or fled the country. Records show that immediately following the genocide, Rwanda’s population of 5.5 million to 6 million was 60 to 70 percent female. Most of these women had never been educated or raised with the expectations of a career. In pre-genocide Rwanda, it was almost unheard of for women to own land or take a job outside the home.

The genocide changed all that. The war led to Rwanda’s “Rosie the Riveter” moment: It opened the workplace to Rwandan women just as World War II had opened it to American women.

In America, most WWII opportunities were short-lived. Millions of men came home after the war to claim their former jobs while women returned to domestic roles or jobs like nurse, teacher or secretary.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that a new generation took up the call for equal opportunity.

Rwanda, that’s not what happened.

The call for equality was led not by thousands of women but by one man — President Paul Kagame, who has led the country since his army stopped the genocide. Kagame decided that Rwanda was so demolished, so broken, it simply could not rebuild with men’s labor alone. So the country’s new constitution, passed in 2003, decreed that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. The government also pledged that girls’ education would be encouraged. That women would be appointed to leadership roles, like government ministers and police chiefs. Kagame vowed to not merely play catch-up to the West but leapfrog ahead of it.

The country embraced Kagame’s policies and even went beyond his mandatory minimum. In the 2003 election, 48 percent of parliamentary seats went to women. In the next election — 64 percent.


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