As Kenya’s parliament grapples with Chief Justice David Maraga's advisory to dissolve Parliament over its failure to implement the two-thirds gender rule as stated in the Constitution, Rwandan women parliamentarians advise that political will and gender sensitive policies can guarantee the required women representation in governments.
Rwanda has exceeded its constitutional requirement that women should hold up 30 per cent of elected positions with 61 per cent of the parliament and 52 per cent of the cabinet being women. This makes the East African country the most gender-inclusive in the world.
“Our society is patriarchal as most countries in Africa, so it required Rwanda to have a strong mind-set change, political will and policies that particularly aim at improving women representation and presence in the government,” says Euthalie Nyirabega, one of the longest serving women in the parliament.
Ms Nyirabega, however, emphasizes that achieving such a great gender representation in the government cannot be an overnight process even when the constitution requires so.
“It is a process that goes with numerous significant changes that promote gender in a society as a whole.”
The first Rwanda parliament that started as a Transitional National Assembly in 1994, contained 70 seats with eight (or 11.4 per cent) held by women. In January 1997, women’s representation in the Chamber of Deputies rose to 17.1 per cent; in November 2000, it rose again to 25.7 per cent.
The 2003 new Constitution, article 9 (4) states one of the fundamental principles to be: “Building a State governed by the rule of law, a pluralistic democratic government, equality of all Rwandans and between women and men, reflected by ensuring that women are granted at least thirty per cent of posts in decision-making organs.
Under this system, two seats per province and two seats for Kigali City are reserved for women (24 seats). These women are elected by a joint committee of the members of the relevant local authority and the members of the executive committee of women’s organisations at the relevant level.
In addition to big numbers of women in decision-making organs, Rwandan women in the government do not seem to have been relegated to traditional women’s positions.
Following the 2003 election, 39 of 80 deputies were women, or 48.75 per cent of the Chamber. Currently, 61 per cent in the lower house and its speaker are women.
In addition to big numbers of women in decision-making organs, Rwandan women have not been relegated to traditional women’s positions in the government.
Although the Minister for Gender and Family Promotion is a woman, the ministers for Education, Trade and Industry and in the Office of the President are all women. The Deputy Chief Justice is also a woman.
Ms Nyirabega who has served in the parliament for 13 years says that for pro-gender policies, women in parliament “bargain” for changes.
“Today, seeing our women with equal rights and opportunities in education and employment feels like our most stunning achievement that I am proud of. It was not easy to lobby for policies and laws given the mind-set of some Rwandans back in years. With our men counterparts, it has been possible,” she said.
Theoneste Safari Begumisa, works with Nyirabega and has recently decided to join Rwanda Women Parliamentary Forum despite him being a man because he admires their commitment. He says some policies would not have been approved if it was not for women in the parliament.
“Especially for GBV-related laws, we have been able to approve policies and laws majorly because women have been either pushy or came up with such ideas.”
Ismael Buchanan, a political analyst and university lecturer says the work of women in parliament can be manifested in policies to address issues of equality, education, women’s relatively poor economic position, childcare, violence against women among others.
“Pro-gender policies and laws are not only set but also functional from the grassroots level and I think that can be attributed to the high number of women in policy-making positions,” he says.
Mr Buchanan refutes the argument that women parliamentarians make rubber stamp decisions without proper debates.
“Just because we do not see vocal debates or fights in the parliament does not mean deputies do not debate. As beneficiaries, what we need to see is not fights but realistic laws that address existing issues and we already see that,” he says.
However, some still gender-related issues including teen pregnancies have significantly increased in the last few years.
“We still see women being the major victims of gender-based violence and thousands of teen pregnancies are recorded per year. This is particularly our work as women in parliament,” she said.
Ms Nyirabega serves in 2018-2023 current mandate in the Chamber of Deputies.
The Chamber is made up of 80 deputies, 53 are elected for five-year term by proportional representation and 24 are elected by provincial councils; of the remainder, two are appointed by the National Youth Council, and one by the Federation of the Associations of the Disabled.