“We are taking control of our country”: the women of Rwanda today
Rwanda is often remembered as the country in which its eponymous genocide took place last century. The genocide resulted in the loss of life of more than a million people, over the course of a three month period, starting from the night between the 6th and 7th of April 1994. This occurred after the plane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyiarimana and Burundi President Cuprien was shot down by unknown assailants. For one hundred days, the paramilitary soldiers of the interahamwe (those who fight together), with the support of the National Rwandan Army (FPR), determined that Rwanda was an open cemetery – the little infrastructure that existed was destroyed and private property was raided.
The majority of Rwandan women found themselves in desperate circumstances: their community was scattered and their male relatives were often found dead or sent into exile. They had to fight daily in order to feed themselves and keep their children alive. They found themselves taking care of other relatives and orphans, as well as confronting debilitating physical and psychological trauma, which stemmed from an inability to comprehend the horrors which they had experienced.
It was in the context that the crisis served, with the government not having the means to respond to the country’s most critical needs, that the women began to search for a means of cooperation in order to confront the problems occuring. Asides from favouring the creation (or rather reformation) of former societal norms, the situation following the conflict saw women perform a series of jobs and other activities previously held by men. Often, women had to serve as the head of the family. Having to provide for children and orphans, these women were made to take on roles that used to be reserved only for men: house construction, and management of relations with the government, among others, were undertaken in order to generate a sufficient income to guarantee their survival.
Photography by Massimiliano Pescarolo
Rwanda, twenty-five years after the Tutsi genocide, holds a somewhat significant world record: it is the country with the highest number of women in parliament in the world (68% following the last parliamentary elections in 2018). The country is equipped with an institutional and legislative apparatus for Equal Opportunity that is truly remarkable.
In Rwanda, there are women’s representatives at every administrative level, from villages all the way up to government, across a number of important institutions, such as the National Women’s Council (NWC). For many years up until 2018, Lousie Mushikiwabo, a woman, served as the Foreign Minister. She also previously served as the head of the International Francophone Organisation (OIF).
The level of feminist promotion today is like no other following the genocide. Women were also the majority of those that remained in Rwanda following the escape of the perpetrators to the Congo RDC. In order to rebuild the country, it thus became necessary to actively co-involve them in both the economic and political scopes. This was a top-down approach, enacted by the government, under the form of a ‘rapid’ path towards gender equality.
However, beyond the women who today sit in parliament and are part of the government, how do women live an ‘average’ and ‘ordinary’ Rwandan life in the popular neighbourhood of Kigali? How have their lives been shaped in Rwanda today, caught between a desire to innovate and modernise and the inevitable consequences of the tragedies of the past?
In order to investigate, we went to try and find the women of the Nyamirambo Women’s Center (NWC), as well as those of the Dushyigikirane Cooperative in Gatenga. They are two dressmaking cooperatives in popular neighbourhoods within Kigali. The former company is very established within the area, with a wider clientele than the second, who are a more recent start-up.
As Marie Aimèe Umugeni, the director and one of the founders of the NWC, explained to us, the center is a local NGO. It started with 18 women as members in 2007, all of different ages, religions and diverse backgrounds (both Hutu and Tutsi). All, however, were residents of the popular neighbourhood of Nyamamirambo, the oldest and most populous area in the capital of Kigali.
The center was founded with the intention of promoting education, professional training and employment for poor or disadvantaged women in the area. At the end of 2013, with the support of Slovenia, the center became a small local business (for dressmaking but also as tourist center), with the aim of being self-sufficient. They launched the product line ‘Umutima’ (‘heart’ in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language), that comprises of bags, tablecloths, household accessories, and clothes for adults and children. The products are made utilising African cloth (kitenge), and are sold mostly to tourists and foreigners. The quality and uniqueness of the items and how they are manufactured make them unmistakable. Umutima has become a true and distinctive ‘brand’, and the store in Nyamirambo has become a fixed stop not only for tourists and expatriates, but also Rwandans that want to buy something unique, trendy or ‘a la mode’, made with African cloth and, strictly, “made in Rwanda”.
The center has also launched initiatives aimed at tourists, such as community walks to discover the neighbourhood, with young women as guides, who explain the history of Nyamirambo, and take them to the area’s most beautiful viewpoints and interesting places of worship. The guides never forget to mention the Muslim community of Kigali, which is different from that of the Catholics, who succeeded in protecting their fellow Tutsis during the days of the genocide. There are around 50 women working for the NWC.
Photography by Massimiliano Pescarolo
Marie Aimèe recalled in an interview with The Berkeley Centre in 2016 that the center, despite having now reached a certain level of popularity, has not turned into a ‘selfish business’, and instead continues to run information courses for poor women in the neighbourhood, with lessons on haircuts and sewing, workshops on women’s rights and also a small library/after school-care for children in the area.
The center assists numerous women with children to take care of, who have been abandoned by their spouses. This happens predominantly among Muslims, who are left without anything when their men choose to take a second wife. “Despite polygamy being illegal, it is still a reality in Nyamirambo and husbands, very often, are not able to provide an income for children with both co-wives” explains Marie Aimèe.
Dushyigikirane is, in contrast, a tiny cooperative of seamstresses along the road of Gatenga, another popular neighbourhood in the capital of Kigali. ‘Dushyigikirane’ is an encouragement in Kinyarwanda, which means ‘Let us help each other’. The cooperative was founded in 2015, following training in both haircutting and sewing offered to the women of the neighbourhood by the Local Congregation of Sisters ‘Inshuti z’Abakene’ (friends of the poor).
There are 16 women at Dushyigikirane, who work in a small mud hut off the main road of Gatenga. Every evening, they take their sewing machines home. “Our workplace is not secure enough. A few months ago, a thief managed to dig a hole in the wall. He took some of the sewing machines and other materials. It was a significant loss – one that we do not wish to repeat again,” Clarisse, one of the members of Dushyigikirane, tells me.
The women of Dushyigikirane are all above 45 years of age. There are both Hutu and Tutsis, with highly varied stories between them, but, as they told us, they have no intention of lingering on the differences of the past. They would much rather look forward to the future, just as the country does in general. Many of them are widows, and the majority of them are HIV-positive.
Their clients are Rwandans from Gatenga, who come to have their clothes mended, to sew school uniforms for their children or to make a nice Sunday dress. Only occasionally do a few foreign tourists or volunteers pass through the zone by chance, often on the advice of the Salesian religious institute. Occasionally, a small Italian association, Turi Kumwe Onlus, makes a few sporadic product orders.
The women of Dushyihik know the Myamirambo Women, and look on at the example set by Marie Aimèe’s group with great admiration. They aim to go there as soon as possible, in order to exchange ideas with the women – women that have achieved a desirable level of success, and whose products are truly unique. “We don’t intend to copy what they have done,” says their president Jeannette. “We intend to take inspiration from them and to understand where we can improve. I am certain that among us women, we understand and know how to gain useful tips. For everything else, we are in the same boat: we work in order to help develop our country, which has been through so much in the past, but for which we take care of with love for the future.”