There’s a buzz in Kigali. It’s the weekend and Dr Jose Chameleone is in town. The concert venue is filling up. Not just with a young crowd, but families too…children, mothers and fathers. They’re all here to see one of the most popular hip hop artists in East Africa perform.
After half an hour of waiting he eventually appears. Clad in a shiny, gold tracksuit, he works the crowd and waves his native Ugandan flag all over the place. Two scantily-clad women gyrate by his side. And then… something unexpected.
I did not expect it, but somehow I was not entirely surprised either. It seems Dr Chameleone knows how to appeal to the modern Rwandan woman: headstrong, independent and eager to fight for her rights.
This passion for gender equality is an enthusiasm influenced by the events of almost 20 years ago, when one of the most horrific genocides of the C20th left many of the country’s men slaughtered, and the women to pick up the pieces.
“70% of the population was all of a sudden female”, the MP Faith Mukakalisa tells me “and the job of rebuilding Rwanda fell to us. We’ve been shouting about women’s empowerment ever since.” Staying a housewife, she says, was never an option. There were businesses to run, fields to sow, important decisions to make.
Now women hold 56% of the seats in Rwanda’s Parliament, by far the highest percentage of female MPs anywhere in the world. There is also a constitution in place which stipulates equal rights for both genders in education, land and personal finance. Women hold the power to review laws, amend them and eradicate discrimination wherever they see it. “You cannot deny it”, Faith says: “women were the building blocks of the relatively stable nation you see before you today.”
But reaching stability has not been easy. That becomes evident when I visit a group of women embroiderers at a local factory.
Yet a determination to normalise their lives, put food back on the table and learn new skills has given them the strength to unite. Whereas once their families were at war; these women now sit alongside each other, singing and chatting about village life… making a living. Their employer says nothing makes her happier than watching a woman withdraw her own money with her own bank card for the first time.
It is undeniable that women empowerment has been crucial for Rwanda in terms of economic development. How the latest political allegations will pan out and what sort of an impact the withdrawal of international aid will have on Rwandans, whose government budget depends on it, is unclear. But the ordinary women who’ve tried so hard to turn their country around will surely be hoping their work has not been in vain.
On my last day in Rwanda, Maria Aimee the manager of a women’s centre in the Nyamirambo district takes me on a walk through the colourful and muddy market streets of the area. She is due to give birth any day now. As we stop for a rest, she tells me she’s expecting a baby girl and she can’t conceal her excitement.
“Marie Aimee, what do you hope most for your baby girl?” I ask.
“That Rwanda continues to succeed” she says. “That my baby has a good education, perhaps she’ll grow up to be a politician, a teacher or an engineer. It’s not like when I was young. Nothing will stop her. She’ll be able to do whatever she wants…”