GISOZI, Rwanda (WOMENSENEWS)--Mayor Marie Izabilza sat quietly in the back of the dirt floor concrete room here in an impoverished province on the outskirts of Kigali.
Her round face was furrowed in thought. Before her, a dozen young Rwandan war orphans fired off their concerns.
"It's difficult to stay in school," said Josephina Ndushamazina, 25, who walks five hours roundtrip to reach her secondary school. "I have been living in a bad way as a street child, and I don't have enough money to pay the fees and transportation. If I get any money, I use it to buy something to eat."
"Even if I can get to school, I can't concentrate," said Delanoe Nyagatarie, 21. "Not only am I hungry, I'm always thinking about how to support my five brothers and sisters."
Izabilza nodded as each one took a turn to voice a request to go to secondary school, find a job, buy food or visit a health clinic.
A recently elected mayor for this province of several thousand, Izabilza says she wasn't even aware that the group of war orphans was living in her jurisdiction until that very day.
The group had been brought to the province by an international aid organization over 10 years ago after their parents had been killed during the 1994 genocide. Ever since, they had been living largely on their own, acting as mothers and fathers to their siblings.
In response to their questions, Izabilza began brainstorming.
With some creative bookkeeping, there might be enough money in the local coffers to fund a couple of scholarships. At the very least, the construction of a new school in the province could lead to jobs for several of the orphans. And most important, she asked that all visit the local health clinic for basic checkups.
"Since I have been mayor, people have been happy because I am out all the time asking them what their problems are and trying to come up with solutions," she said.
Izabilza and other women like her are part of a new band of female politicians working at local levels in Rwanda, which is struggling to rebuild a decade after a genocide left more than 800,000 dead in 100 days and this small Central African nation devastated.
Women hold close to 49 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, a larger percentage that any other parliamentary body in the world. Several women are cabinet members, including the minister of justice. A woman is deputy police chief and another heads the National Reconciliation Commission, which has been working to ease the country's deeply entrenched ethnic wariness lingering from the genocide.
Much of the rise of women in government stems from the initiatives of President Paul Kagame, who holds a strong grip on power and whose forces ended the mass killings of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu forces in the 1994 genocide. But women's rise in political rank is also fueled by the grim absence of men. As a result of the conflict, women outnumber men 7-to-1.
Now, as the country strives to rebuild, political organizers and high-ranking women in the national government are pushing for more female leaders such as Izabilza to take charge of local government in hopes of extending women's recent political gains into the future.
Their goal: Recruit and train women across the country to run in local elections next year. So far, there are no numbers of how many women will run, but organizers say they are hoping to have women in each of over 100 municipalities.
Sabre Heads Leader Training
Marte Sabre, head of the Rwandan Women's Caucus, a nongovernmental organization in Kigali, is heading the movement to train more local leaders like Izabilza.
"Normally, in Rwandan culture, a woman was supposed to be shy," she said. "That's a barrier to being a leader because you can not lead if you have no confidence."
To build that sense of leadership, Sabre runs country-wide organizing workshops for new political recruits that teach lobbying and campaigning techniques as well as media relations.
She says that while women are making strides in leadership they still cope with maintaining family responsibilities and overcoming deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that keep men as head of the household. Domestic violence remains a very real occurrence in Rwanda, she says.
Female politicians are very conscious of the importance of gender development for men, she says, and to that end local leaders are encouraged to hold group workshops to address men's concerns.
"If you forget the men, you'll have a problem because it won't solve the real problems in your society. We train women only, but they are trained to lead the whole society."
Women Make Strides
Before the genocide, about 10 percent of women were literate. Sabre says that figure is now over 50 percent. Another advance was legislation passed in 1999 that rewrote inheritance laws to allow women to own family property.
"Women saw their lives transformed by the genocide," said Elizabeth Powley, head of the Rwandan office of Women Waging Peace, based in Cambridge, Mass. "They are poised to be leaders not just here but in the continent and in the world. They are aware of their special place in history and are rising to the challenge."
The next step, she said, is to transform the numbers into real influence that will improve the lives of women. Significant challenges remain after the ethnic strife that destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and left one-third of all households headed by widows or orphans.
Maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, reports UNICEF. Many women in Rwanda are struggling with AIDS and a life expectancy that in 2003 had fallen to 39 from 45 in 1990.
Family planning is not widely practiced and girls are only just starting to complete primary education. Agriculture generates 90 percent of the country's earnings, with women tilling many of the fields. Average annual incomes in the country are $1,300.
Many women suffer the wounds of war, including rape and physical violence as well as the trauma of witnessing the deaths of family members. The spread of HIV/AIDS continues, with 13 percent of Rwandans between the ages of 15 and 49 infected. Infectious disease experts say that number is misleading, because many do not get tested.
Barihuta Focuses on Education
These are all problems that women such as Aime Barihuta, working as thelocal sub-mayor of Gitarama province, are anxious to address.
She says that AIDS remains a big problem in her district and that she is trying to teach women to abstain from sex, although condoms are considered a last resort.
Her main focus, however, is on basic education for girls, which she sees as the long-term way to eliminate problems like AIDS and improve the economic prospects for women.
"The one problem is poverty," she said. "And that goes to all of the social problems."
Barihuta has been leading a program to encourage more families to send their girls to school and she says that most are going.
Barihuta, who will run for re-election in 2006, says she's firmly committed to her office. "If I'm still alive, I will continue doing this work and finish what I started."
The research and production of this series on emerging female leaders of Africa was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The reporter, Alexandra Poolos, is managing editor of Women's eNews. She has worked for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Newsday. This fall, she will begin a fellowship at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.