To Hell and Back: How Rwanda’s Women Helped It Become a World Leader


An article by Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Takepart (reprinted by permission)

The Swiss may be known for their mastery of clocks, perfecting fine chocolates, and running trains on time—but when it comes to running an efficient government, Rwanda has them beat. The small, landlocked Central African nation has topped the Swiss by two ranks to come in seventh in the world in government efficiency, according to the World Economic Forum. The U.S. doesn’t even make the top 10.

rwandaRwandan women react during the constitutional amendment debate in parliament in Kigali on July 14. (Photo: Cyril Ndegeya/Getty Images)

Through a rigorous look at dozens of factors, the nonprofit global organization credits Rwanda’s low level of waste in government spending and a factor called labor market efficiency for the country’s overall high ranking—noting that the nation of 10.6 million has seen dramatic improvements in economic life: A GDP that hovered at around $200 per capita in 2000 rose to nearly $700 in 2013. 

Something perhaps even more remarkable about Rwanda is buried in these stats: It ranks third out of the 144 countries scored for the ratio of women in the labor force. For every man working in Rwanda, 1.02 women are employed. To boot, Rwanda is also the only country on Earth where more women than men serve as elected officials. 

In part, that’s because the country created a constitutional quota in 2005 that women must make up at least 30 percent of leadership in decision-making organs. That means women compose about 64 percent of the nation’s lower parliament and 38 percent of its senate. By comparison, the U.S. has never elected a Congress that’s more than 20 percent women.

When President Barack Obama was in Kenya on a state visit last weekend, he gave a speech extolling the virtues of letting women lead.

“Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allowing them to maximize their potential is doomed to fall behind in a global economy,” Obama told the audience.

Rwanda may be the best proof of just how right he is.

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Question for this article:

Can the women of Africa lead the continent to peace?

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There’s a less uplifting reason, however, for the droves of women working and leading in Rwanda. They are a reflection of a de facto population—namely, those who survived the 1994 genocide. During several bloody months, Hutus laid waste to Tutsis, and nearly a million people were slaughtered, including the systematic and targeted killing of those who were educated, those who were leaders—those who were crucial parts of the social fabric. The bloodshed left behind a population that was 70 percent women and a country that was in desperate need of functional leadership at every level. 

By now, the male-female ratio has mostly evened out. Yet, the mark left by the genocide is as indelible as it is invisible, in many ways, according to Azeb Tadesse, the deputy director for the African Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Tadesse has visited Rwanda a number of times, spending most of her time in the capital city of Kigali—which she describes as a clean and modern place—as the U.S. director for the Women’s Leadership Project, a global effort to improve gender equality for women through advanced education and improved access.

The genocide doesn’t come up explicitly in conversation, but it’s an unspoken part of the national psyche. 

“I think when you go through such a traumatic experience as a society, you start questioning everything. And maybe one of the things is, ‘Has it really done us much good to keep women out of the leadership and the professional life of the nation?’ ” Tadesse said in an interview with TakePart. 

Rwanda’s rare moment of reckoning has, in some way, helped lead to a remarkable 20-year transformation since the genocide—something Tadesse attributes, in part, to the broad-minded conversation about how to move forward and shape a national identity that goes beyond inclusion for Hutus and Tutsis and also looks at men and women as equals. 

“Something that you would notice if you’re working in Rwanda is the number of female colleagues you will have at the different levels,” said Tadesse. “Not to say it has surprised me—but it is something to take note of.”

Rwanda’s authoritarian leadership, headed by President Paul Kagame, may also claim credit for the order and high efficiency ranking of the country. Though he counts among his fans globe-trotting philanthropists from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates, Kagame has been called a strongman. Still, he’s credited for rebuilding the broken country after the genocide. Perhaps it takes a very strong man to advocate for such a powerful female presence. 

Kagame isn’t alone in drawing criticism as far as human rights go. The countries that top the World Economic Forum’s list of most efficient nations are a mixed bag. Leaders in top-ranked Qatar have faced criticism for treatment of low-paid migrant workers since their successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and there is some domestic dissent over free expression. Singapore may rate highly for efficiency, but caning and corporal punishment are still common there.

Neither enjoys the stats that Rwanda does when it comes to the rights and inclusion of half the population—women.

(Thank you to Janet Hudgins, the CPNN reporter for this article.)