Elizabeth Powley

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–They watched helplessly as their husbands, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends and even children were cut down with machetes. After the genocide, Rwandan women picked up the pieces of their broken lives and their broken country and began to rebuild.

Women have played a pivotal role in reconstructing Rwanda since Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 people in 1994. They havebeen prominent in and outside the government, and recently were elected to fill nearly half the seats in the lower house of Parliament. Their leadership has been critical to the continuing recovery of a nation that lost one-tenth of its population in about 100 days, according to international peace experts.

In fact, analysts say, war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan would be wise to follow Rwanda’s lead and make women full partners as they rebuild. They are not.

The failure is particularly pronounced in Iraq, where the reconstruction is being orchestrated by the United States, said Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute for Peace, which was created by Congress to promote peace and reduce international conflicts.

“What we have is bad performance in Afghanistan, worse performance in Iraq,” Serwer said, noting, in particular, that there are no women on Iraq’s constitutional commission. “They need provisions in the constitution to guarantee women’s rights.”

The Bush administration decided early on “to mainstream women’s issues in Iraq, not to treat them separately,” Serwer said. He and others said that, in some ways, Iraqi women have less influence now than they did under deposed President Saddam Hussein.

When Hussein’s Ba’ath Party wrested control of the government in 1968, one of its goals was gender equality, according to a report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a foreign-policy institute established by Congress, and Women Waging Peace, an international network that advocates women’s participation in recovery efforts. Iraqi women lost significant ground following the 1991 Gulf War, the report said.

“Saddam’s regime was not friendly towards women–there were rape squads–but there were women participating in governance,” Serwer said.

Bush administration officials who work on international women’s issues conceded there were cultural impediments, such as societal discrimination, to women’s full participation in Iraq’s reconstruction. But they insisted the United States had not turned a blind eye to the situation.

“The U.S. role is to foster women’s aspirations for a politically tolerant future Iraq, one in which human rights for all citizens are equally protected,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States is working with women’s leaders to open doors in political and professional arenas, officials said. Half of the 40 Iraqis who attended a U.S.-sponsored constitutional workshop in Bahrain this September were women, they added. Another 80 Iraqi women, along with some U.S. observers, attended a workshop in July to discuss such topics as owning businesses and creating social programs.

“Iraqi women remember the ’60s, look back with pride at the role of women in society at all levels, the golden era, perhaps,” the State Department official said. “These older women would like to see women again as active participants. I am confident this will happen again in due course. It’s unreasonable to expect women to be able to reintegrate overnight.”

The United States has had more success improving the lot of women in Afghanistan, in part because their needs were even greater than those of women in Iraq, State Department officials and outside experts said. The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council was established last year as a public-private partnership to help women move into positions of leadership and to establish centers throughout the country to help women obtain schooling, find jobs and create businesses.

“There are so many women there who are 25 years old, they’ve never been to school in their lives,” said a Bush administration official who asked not to be named. More than Afghan women, Iraqi women “are primed to become leaders,” the official said.

Rwanda as a Model

Serwer and others familiar with international conflict resolution said Rwanda would not have been able to overcome the horrors of its past without the significant involvement of women.

“Generally, the people who have been excluded or underrepresented are great partners for change . . . That usually means women,” said Rick Barton, coordinator of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Not only were Rwanda’s women generally excluded from decision-making positions before 1994, they were targeted during the genocide specifically because of their gender. Many women were raped, murdered or disfigured.

Women Seen Better at Reconciliation

After the bloodshed stopped in June 1994, women and girls represented 70 percent of Rwanda’s population, said Elizabeth Powley, author of “Strengthening Governance: The Role of Women in Rwanda’s Transition,” a study on Rwanda released recently by Women Waging Peace, of Cambridge, Mass. The perception among survivors of both sexes, she said, was that women were better than men at forgiving, reconciling and building peace. Fewer women perpetrated the killings–they represented 2.3 percent of those jailed–and fewer were viewed as corrupt, Powley’s report said.

Women immediately stepped up to the plate, finding homes for orphans, caring for survivors and rebuilding homes. Women whose relatives perpetrated genocide teamed up with women whose families were victimized, said Louise Mushikiwabo, a Rwanda native who works for the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

The surviving male political leaders supported the involvement of women and other groups that had been excluded in the past, such as youth. Women headed major institutions set up to rebuild the country and prosecute the killers.

“Rwandans believe that, in their victimization and endurance, women bore the brunt of the genocide and therefore deserve a significant and official role in the nation’s recovery,” Powley wrote in her report.

Added Mushikiwabo: “Men have, in a way, given a chance to women to prove they can do a job.”

Women emerged as leaders in the private sector as well, particularly in fields in which they had been virtually invisible before, such as banking, Mushikiwabo said. “They have become cab drivers, they have become mechanics, they have become Cabinet members,” she said.

Women’s Role Formalized in Constitution

Rwanda’s new constitution set aside 24 of 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, for women. Following October elections, in which they competed against men to win 15 additional seats, 39 women took their places in the chamber. They now hold nearly 49 percent of the seats, a greater proportion than in any other parliament worldwide, according to a tally by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, which represents 138 parliaments. The union reported last month that Rwanda “has come the closest to reaching parity between men and women of any national parliament,” replacing long-time champion Sweden.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which advised Rwandans on how to write a “gender-sensitive” constitution, also reported that women hold 6 of 20 Senate seats, or 30 percent.

“No other country is doing what Rwanda is doing to bring women into the political process,” Powley said.

The outgoing Parliament, formed before the new election laws took effect this year, included fewer women–24 percent. Nevertheless, it repealed a number of laws that were unfair to women, including a ban on inheriting property.

To be sure, women still have lower incomes and literacy rates than men. Rwanda remains plagued by crime, poverty and HIV-AIDS. But women’s advances there, said Mushikiwabo, “have a lot to do with the change of attitude of Rwandan men.”

That hasn’t happened in Iraq, which is experiencing a resurgence of Islamic extremism, according to Women Waging Peace and the Woodrow Wilson center. “There is strong resistance from the Iraqi men to women’s political participation,” said Serwer. “Some argue that there’s a lack of available, qualified Iraqi women . . . I find it very hard to believe.”

Jodi Enda writes about government and politics from Washington.

For more information:

Women Waging Peace Policy Commission–
“Strengthening Governance: The Role of Women in Rwanda’s Transition”
(Adobe PDF document):

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars–
“Winning the Peace: Forum Explores Role of Women in Post-Conflict Iraq”