According to UN Women, in 2013, The Rwandan parliament had the highest representation of women in parliament in the world with 64% of its parliamentarians being women. While this is something that should be celebrated, it should be considered alongside the country’s weaker position on gender inequality indexes before we lionise President Paul Kagame and his increasingly authoritarian government. Although these statistics are impressive, political analysts have cautioned against lauding a regime that could be using token representation to distract from its shift towards authoritarianism. The country still has a long way to go in achieving gender equality that translates into meaningful empowerment of all women.

Gender parity in Rwanda

Despite occupying first place on the Inter-Parliamentary Union‘s ranking of women in parliament, Rwanda only ranks 158th in the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index. This index considers inequality in terms of reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market. The calculations are based on data from adolescent birth rate, labour force participation rate, maternal mortality ratio, population with secondary education, and share of seats in parliament. These figures speak more to the realities for women at all levels in Rwanda and reflect that Rwanda’s high representation of women in parliament is not guaranteed to translate into transformation that benefits all women. 

According to Irene Ndung’u, scholar and researcher in the Nairobi office of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), these moves are primarily aimed at fulfilling government quotas. Ndung’u questions whether we should really be praising the high representation of women in the Rwandan parliament. She says it cannot be assumed that placing women in positions in parliament will automatically address issues of female empowerment within the country as a whole, especially as many of these positions do not allow for much influence over policies and regulations that could benefit poorer or lower class women.

Gender Equality on a variety of levels

The Rwandan National Gender Statistics Report of 2016, the most recent report published, reveals that results regarding gender equality within the Rwandan government are mixed. Although the president and prime minister of the country are male, many of the upper echelons of government consist predominantly of women. However, representation of women in lower levels of government, especially at local and community levels, see far less representation of women, with limited representation in positions like judges and mayors, with women comprising only 33,5% of Rwanda’s Chief Executives, Senior Officers and Legislators. Only 34,5% of Rwanda’s Commercial and Administrative Managers are women, and only 37% of its supreme court are women. 

These numbers bring into focus the disparities between representation in parliament and other government or decision-making positions, revealing that parliament is one of the few institutions actually reaching the 30% quota. This means there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender parity at all levels of governance, and so celebrating a few high figures can obscure the reality for women who are unable to access these new opportunities or participate in these forms of leadership.

It is crucial to look into these statistics to discuss how although parliament may reflect strides towards gender equality, many women still lack the power to make decisions and work in high-powered jobs. Women who do occupy governmental positions are in the minority and the prosaic reality for the vast majority of Rwandan women is that opportunities in leadership are not accessible.

Quantity over quality

Although women parliamentarians have been successful in introducing improvements to laws on inheritance, land rights, and violence against women, analysts have noted limitations to transformation in gender equality. Many have raised the question of quantity over quality, where quotas have been prioritized over meaningful empowerment. This question is likely to prevail in the future, as the number of women in parliament grows while the needs of poorer, rural women are still not addressed.

The question of the quality of the numbers has also been raised alongside concerns around the RPF’s promotion of women who are loyal to them, and who might not be competent. If the quotas are a means to obtain the RPF’s political gains, then Ndungu says they are “hollow gains, ones that are incapable of bringing about the comprehensive institutional and systemic transformation required to achieve the country’s gender parity objectives”.

Some analysts have also identified this high representation of women in parliament as a tool to distract from what is becoming an increasingly authoritarian regime. Irene Ndungu says many of the women in high positions in government are loyal to the governing party and are appointed because of their loyalty to the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rather than based on merit.

The treatment of female dissidents of the regime, many of whom have been imprisoned, does not reflect this eagerness to empower all women. Diane Rwigara, a fierce critic of President Paul Kagame, announced her bid for the presidency in 2017. Both she and her supporters were threatened and intimidated, and  she was quickly disqualified from the race, allegedly on technical grounds. In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, she said, “So what if Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament? It’s just part of the image. What do the women do?”