After the genocide of 1994, the women of Rwanda emerged as leaders in their communities and government. This video segment from the Wide Angle film "Ladies First" introduces some of the challenges the women have faced, and how they have succeeded.
Ten years after the genocide, women worked to rebuild the war-torn country of Rwanda. Breaking new ground to unify the nation, women took the lead in government, business, and in promoting peace.
The history of Rwanda is a complex one, steeped in a legacy of shifting colonial powers and ethnic conflict. First colonized by Germany in the 1890s, Rwanda subsequently fell under Belgian rule in the aftermath of World War I. The European colonists helped to widen tribal resentments between two ethnic groups living in the area, the Hutus and Tutsis. In the early days of colonization, German and then Belgian authorities gave preferential privileges to Tutsis, who were in the minority in the population. But when Rwanda began to demand independence from Belgium in the late 1950s, the colonists shifted allegiance and backed the previously sublimated Hutus. Tutsi loyalists attempted to stop this shift by killing key Hutu leaders. The payback was swift and brutal, and the Hutus launched the first of several pogroms against Tutsi people. In the years that followed, waves of Tutsi refugees left the country. By 1990 there were approximately 600,000 Rwandans living in exile.
In April 1994, Rwanda's then-powerful Hutu carried out a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi people. The aim was to stop invading Rwandan Tutsi revolutionaries and to remove their local support by liquidating their power base. The Hutu-led Mouvement Révolutionnaire Nationale pour le Développement (MRND — National Revolutionary Movement for Development) and its military carried out an attempt at genocide. In response, Tutsi revolutionaries took control of the country in July, stemming the violence. But in terms of genocide, most observers would agree that the Hutus were frighteningly successful — killing more than 800,000 people in a short three-month period.
Ten years after this horrific atrocity, the country had much healing to do - but had also become a model of feminist opportunity. With so many male Rwandans killed off by the 1994 genocide, nearly seventy percent of the remaining population was female. Recent developments in the government and legislature to place women in positions of power upturned a long history of female disempowerment and have made Rwanda one of the most progressive nations in the world in terms of gender equity. Women now participate at every level of government and occupy almost half the seats in the national parliament.