Just as women in the United States in WWII stepped up to fill roles that had until then been denied them, women in Rwanda took on new roles in the wake of social changes brought about by the 1994 genocide. Women adopted expanding roles in government, first in the transitional government and then in increasing numbers through electoral victory. As a result, Rwanda is at the top of the world in terms of women in power, with 48.8% of the seats in the lower house, 34.6% of the seats in the Senate (compare with 16.3% of Congress in the U.S. and an average of 17.8% worldwide).

What have these women done while in power? According to Carla Koppell of the Initiative for Inclusive Security, who spoke today at Georgetown University, these women have worked towards changing both the policy and process of the Rwandan Parliament.

For example, the women created the first and only cross-party caucus that introduced the only bill to originate in Parliament. The bill addresses gender-based violence, such as making rape a crime. Not only is the policy contained in the bill novel to Rwanda, the process they have adopted to promote the bill stands as an example: they first consulted with communities to draft the bill, building grassroots buy-in, then reached out to involve male parliamentarians to promote the bill as well.

They have also emphasized consideration of the situation of children, health care, and the differential impact of legislation on women.

How did they achieve such representation? One factor was a requirement in the 2003 Constitution that required 30% representation in all decision-making organs. This gave women a critical mass that allowed them to organize the Forum of Rwandan Woman Parliamentarians (FFRP). This organization is a caucus for policy promotion but also allows for more experienced women to mentor newer members, which has proved central to increasing the involvement of women, and led to participation far beyond the legally required 30%.

A Model for Others
These Rwandan women stand as an example for other countries emerging from conflict, or for that matter for any country. Carla Koppell points out that these Rwandan women illustrate tendencies observed in other countries, in that women legislators are likely to pay more attention to their constituents, to place less emphasis on political partisanship, and to promote good governance and peace.

Without essentializing women as peace-loving, empathetic mothers, we can acknowledge that women legislators bring the concerns of their experience and a perspective that has often been neglected or suppressed by all-male or male-dominated legislatures. Now, the perspective women bring will be different depending on the culture in which they have been socialized. While mothers, for example, may share the experience of raising and caring for children, which could give them a shared concern for the young and vulnerable, this must be contextualized within an understanding of societal differences and must also allow for differences in personality. Within those caveats, though, the example of women in Rwanda shows that they have a unique role in governance, and not merely because it is unfair to exclude them when they make up half of the population or more.

These women have shown that they can work collaboratively to address the problems of a society in which violence against women was deliberately wielded as a weapon of control, and they can do so while creating a more participatory political process.