The New Women of Rwanda
Celina Schocken: You have done significant work promoting greater emphasis on women and girls in development. Is the battle for their health and education in Rwanda, and in Africa, being won or lost?
Jeannette Kagame: I believe things are getting better, although we still have a long way to go. We also have to keep fighting for girls and women without forgetting that in many of our countries, especially in Rwanda where we had to start from zero, boys also need to be supported and men need to be mobilized to be part of the struggle for healthier, better-educated families. At the Imbuto Foundation, we have 1,000 disadvantaged boys and girls on scholarship, and with the understanding that girls face specific barriers to performance, each year we reward the best performing girls in every district to motivate them toward academic excellence. This is our way of contributing to government efforts. In an environment where there is so much need, every effort counts. It is particularly important that Rwandans be involved in solutions to our healthcare challenges as a nation. With committed governments, involved communities and effective coordination of global and regional partnerships, I have no doubt that Rwanda and Africa will win the battle for healthy, educated and skilled citizens.
CS: Rwanda has an unusually high proportion of women in the general population because so many men died during the genocide. How does that affect the country? Can it help to explain the exceptionally prominent role of women in leadership positions?
JK: Rwandan women make up 52 percent of the population. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, indeed many men had died or were in prison for genocide crimes; this left women in charge of homes and communities. However, it is incorrect to attribute this factor to the prominent role of women today. Historically, Rwandan women were treated with respect and considered a quiet force. The prominent role of women in Rwanda today is due to conscious decisions made by the post-genocide leadership, which understood the importance of women and supported women's active participation in all aspects of the nation's development. President Kagame sums it up with this quote: "How can a society hope to transform if it shoots itself in the foot by squandering more than half of its capital investment?"
JK: The support we have received from donors has been crucial to our recovery since 1994. However, we have always viewed aid as a means to an end—as something that ultimately enables us to stand on our own feet. Every country has to define its own path and set its own priorities before even seeking external assistance. For Rwanda, this means focusing on our people as the most valuable resource. This is why the government is investing heavily in health and education—wiring the country for super-fast Internet, developing infrastructure and energy production. We have learned that we need to aspire to independence from aid, and that reform starts from within. Rwanda has embraced homegrown solutions and continues to seek international and private sector support to achieve our vision.
CS: In some ways, by emphasizing issues affecting children and women, you are following in the footsteps of first ladies around the world. As the first established Rwandan first lady after the genocide, how did you decide what role you would play?
JK: Following the genocide, we consulted a wide variety of stakeholders to determine the role of the first lady and how best our office and programs would support and add value to the work that the government was already doing. This assessment process is dynamic, and we regularly review our priorities. We have since evolved from Protection and Care for Families Against HIV/AIDS (PACFA) to the Imbuto Foundation, reflecting the changing needs of our country and our clients.
CS: Rwanda has made great strides in bringing women into official leadership positions. To what extent has this changed attitudes among ordinary Rwandans, especially men?
JK: It is true that attitudes have gradually changed, and we are all the better for it. This shift has come about mainly because Rwandan women have contributed positively to the healing of society and to nation-building. Women alongside their male colleagues have demonstrated leadership and strength through active participation in key national programs, including Unity and Reconciliation; fostering of orphans of the genocide; the Gacaca courts (Rwanda's traditional court system that has been modernized and used to simultaneously administer justice and promote reconciliation); as well as the repatriation and reintegration of former government soldiers. Also, there are an increasing number of women holding elected positions in parliament and local government. Their positive contributions to different aspects of society have won them the confidence of Rwandan men and society at large, who now view women as true partners in nation-building.
Read more interviews with visionary women leaders in PSI's Impact Magazine at PSI.org/impact-magazine
PSI is a leading global health organization with programs targeting malaria, child survival, HIV and reproductive health. Working in partnership within the public and private sectors and harnessing the power of the markets, PSI provides life-saving products, clinical services and behavior change communications that empower the world's most vulnerable populations to lead healthier lives. Learn more at PSI.org
As director of International Organizations, Celina Schocken oversees the management and implementation of PSI's grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Prior to joining PSI, Celina Schocken worked as an early alert and response systems manager for the Global Fund. In 2004, she was chief adviser to the Rwandan Minister of State for HIV/AIDS and Other Epidemics, where she was responsible for drafting national HIV/AIDS policies and coordinating the implementation of multimillion-dollar HIV/AIDS programs.
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