Well, 135 job applications and three continents later, and I finally have another (temporary) life plan, on my fourth continent of 2016. I’m very excited to be returning to Africa, which stole my heart when I first started my life abroad. This will be a bit of a different experience than Cape Town – I’m moving to a village in northwestern Rwanda, in the Nyabihu District. The closest I’ve been to Rwanda is when Julia, Emily and I went into the Serengeti – everyone I speak to for ten minutes knows I love Africa so much so I’m sure you can appreciate my excitement at living in another country there (and the dry lemon! Dancing lady emoji!).
But…. when I said “Rwanda,” did you think “genocide,”? Let’s change that.
The genocide has shaped Rwanda (how could it not?) but Rwanda is not a war zone nor is it a conflict zone. I am by no means moving to a modern city, and I am fully prepared to live without hot water and regular access to electricity (I don’t know if it makes me crazier to have already lived like that for 7 months and be willing to go back to it so quickly, or less crazy because at least I know I can handle it), but I’m not moving to a dangerous country. Rwanda is a relatively stable country with a tragic history that has seen significant changes in the past two decades – its GDP growth averaged 8.1% between 2001 and 2012, it was the first country in the world to issue a complete ban on plastic bags, and on the last Saturday of every month, every Rwandan between the ages of 18 and 65 takes part in community service activities for at least three hours (and the communities compete to complete the best project, which is then rewarded by the government with a cash prize for future development initiatives). It was ranked the fourth least corrupt African nation in 2011, and since 2000 it has reduced its poverty rate from 60% to 45% and increased per-capita income from roughly $210USD to $640USD. As with any country, there are issues and precautions to consider, but everyone I’ve spoken to who has visited or lived in Rwanda recently has told me it’s one of the safest, cleanest and most beautiful African countries.
Most importantly for me, it’s a fascinating country to examine as it relates to gender equality. Rwanda leads the world with share of women in the National Legislature, with women holding 64% of the seats in the lower house. Compare that with the United States, where women hold 19%, or Canada, where they hold 26%. In 2015, the only countries ahead of Rwanda in their Global Gender Gap Ranking were Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Ireland. Rwanda ranked 6th, Canada, 30th. So, how did an African country that suffered a major genocide beat almost every Western country in gender equality rankings?
During the 100 days of slaughter in 1994, between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans were killed, bringing the population down to somewhere between 5.5 million and 6 million. Of that population, 60-70 percent were women, most of whom had never been educated or expected to have a career. In the post-genocide society, however, these women had to lead their families. The Constitution was promulgated in 2003, and implemented a 30% reservation for women as parliamentary representatives. Women overshot their reserved seats in the second round of democratic parliamentary elections in 2008, winning over 56% of the seats (an excellent lesson for my friends in Nepal who remain concerned over the reservations in their Constitution). Further, the government pushed to increase girls’ education rates through its Girls Education Policy and Implementation Plan, and in 2014, girls actually had a higher rate of primary school attendance than boys at 97.3% versus 96.2%. There has been significant government policy to increase women’s participation in society, coming from the top down (which raises problems of its own).
Despite its amazing achievements with regard to gender equality, there remain gender equality issues in Rwanda, including negative views towards the concept/word ‘feminism,’ entrenched patriarchal values, a high rate of domestic violence, a lack of access to modern contraceptive methods, and a lack of access to healthcare facilities for pregnant women. Women in Rwanda did not have the same social movements as they have in the West, fighting for rights through protests and demonstrations; the government decided, as a policy, it made sense to make use of women to advance the nation. An interesting NPR article recently asked, “what happens when a country skips the social upheaval and goes straight to the pro-women policies? When you take an aggressive shortcut through history, what do you leave behind?” It’s a great article, and examines the benefits and issues with a society granting women certain rights, and successfully implementing these rights, but not quite addressing underlying social constraints that impact the traditional role of women.
That’s what I’m hoping to help with.
I’ve been hired as a gender equality specialist and technical coordinator. My contract is set up similarly to that I had in Nepal – my funding is coming from Global Affairs Canada, and I’m contracted with a Canadian organisation, but I’ll be working in the office of a different international organisation, called ADRA Rwanda. A quick Google search will tell you that ADRA has Christian religious affiliations, which will not be that shocking for anyone who has spent any time in sub-Saharan Africa, so my first interview started with me clearly stating that my professional duties as a gender equality specialist required me to advocate for safe access to abortion and the use of modern contraceptive methods. Once I cleared that up with both my contracting organisation and the team at ADRA, I felt a lot better moving forward in my interview process.
I honestly struggled quite a bit in deciding to take on this role, as my long-term career goal is to work in litigation, and I was worried about being away from the court for too long (all my other young international lawyer and development friends told me I was crazy for not immediately jumping on it). If we get more specific about my career goals, though, it’s to use comparative global litigation strategies and jurisprudence for advancing women’s rights. After talking with some of the more senior lawyers who supervised me at the ICTY, I felt a lot better about accepting a field position, where I really get to be involved on the ground and interact with locals. I’m so fortunate to have had the chance to interact with women politicians, judges and advocates in Nepal, but I think this experience can add another really cool layer to my understanding of global issues affecting women and I’m really excited to get started.
So, the bulk of my role will be to develop, implement, monitor and report on the gender equality strategy in Project EMBRACE – a program designed to improve access to maternal, newborn and child healthcare in Rwanda, Burma, Cambodia and Philippines. I’ll be training local staff in gender equality concepts and in the principles of feminism, developing partnerships with local organisations to help mainstream gender in rural Rwandan villages, and assessing healthcare sites to ensure access for individuals with disabilities and inclusivity for all genders.
I’ll also be training staff on facilitating discussions relating to gender based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse. These issues have been so close to my heart since I studied with one of the former UN Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women at the University of Cape Town, particularly as to how they are treated in post-conflict societies or during war itself (again, an amazing article recently came out in Time Magazine regarding the impunity granted to war-time rapists due to the international community’s failure to adequately respond to these crimes, and the need to shift blame from victims to perpetrators of these acts). This is something I care about so much, and the chance to attempt to shift the dialogue and directly deal with some of the underlying social issues that allow for male domination to continue in society while giving back to the continent I love (and hopefully the global community) is such a privilege.
I’m sorry if this sounds like a job application – I did write 135 of them before getting this one, after all – but it’s just that the more I’m preparing to deploy (in three weeks!), the more excited I’m getting about everything – from the work, to living in a new country and meeting new people… everything. My initial contract is for 6 months, renewable for another 6 months after that so if anyone wants to come gorilla trekking with me… let’s get some plans going!
Of course, I will be trying to update you via this blog as often as possible, but as I mentioned, I’m going to be living in a village about three hours northwest of Kigali, and am still unsure as to which facilities I’ll to have regular access to (ie. the internet may be worse than my apartment in Nepal was, so I may be saying goodbye to Netflix/uploading photos again)… but I have high hopes!