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Africa Files: Rwanda

Monday, June 19, 2017 10:00 AM | Emma Hill

Officially known as the Republic of Rwanda, this African nation the size of Maryland has worked to overcome a tumultuous history. Most westerners will be familiar with Rwanda from the film Hotel Rwanda, a film about the Rwandan Genocide. This genocide was a government sponsored atrocity, where for 100 days the ruling ethnic Hutu massacred the Tutsis, an ethnic minority. Two decades later, the nation is still struggling to heal, as those born from mass rape come of age. (1, 3, 6)  

The Rwandan Coat of Arms, from Wikimedia Commons


Rwanda has a long history of ethnic tension. In recent history, ethnic tensions were exacerbated by Belgium colonists. Hutu and Tutsi were required to carry cards identifying their ethnicity. The Belgians also supported Tutsi dominance, offering quality education and government jobs. The Hutu were typically delegated to labor roles. Near the end of their rule, the Belgians attempted to set up tribal power sharing. In 1960 a civil war drove out many of the Tutsi, who fled to Uganda. In 1962, Rwanda achieved independence under a Hutu government. The current President, Paul Kagame, fled Rwanda as a child during this war. In 1990, Tutsi rebels, based in Uganda, tried and failed to overthrow the Hutu dominated government. A peace treaty was signed, but conflicted continued to build. In 1994, the Hutu government planned and led a genocide targeting Tusti citizens.  No international aid was made available during the conflict. The UN felt unequipped to address the violence and withdrew its peacekeeping forces. The genocide was ended when the Tutsi army, led by current day president Paul Kagame, overthrew the Hutu government. Despite the end of the genocide, periodic massacres were committed and gorilla warfare waged by Hutu forces who hid with refugees fleeing to Zaire (now the Congo). The Congo's leadership had issues with their own Tutsi minority, which contributed to a conflict between the Congo and Rwanda for the next four years. (Some consider this time period to be one war, others refer to it as the Fist and Second Congo wars, due to power and alliance shifts halfway through.)  (4, 1, 5, 6)

Map of Rwanda and surrounding region. Credit: BBC (3)

Politics and Gender:

The President, Paul Kagame, has controlled the Rwandan government since his rebel army ended the genocide and seized control of the capital. First as vice president, then as president for 3 terms (so far). His public image has shifted over time, from folk hero and liberator, to dictator. The press has limited freedom and most critical journalists are based overseas. (3)

So many men died during the genocide, the Rwandan government was forced to call upon women to fill the gaps. Now Rwanda’s parliament is half women, an amazing degree of gender inclusivity. Yet traditional gender roles haven’t changed. Unlike other countries that experienced a ‘feminist uprising’ that gradually forced inclusion, Rwanda never had a feminist movement. Women were asked to be patriotic and sacrifice for their country. Women’s political presence is not considered a right, but a privilege, and female parliamentary leaders are still expected to maintain their traditional roles of wife, mother, and caretaker. Young women today, chafe under this contradiction.  The older generation who came of age before the massacre are largely unwilling to protest. They want national stability and security.  The younger generation of women, were children during, or born after the genocide, are more willing to make tentative, yet bold gestures of independence.  Such acts include pursuing higher education in greater numbers, starting businesses, and choosing to work after childbirth. Young men are becoming increasingly used to seeing women in the work place, and seemingly independent in public. The next generation will continue this shift of accepting "the new normal." However, Rwanda doesn't yet have a tradition of feminism, these ideas are just beginning to build. Widespread, but private, gender violence, gender differences in poverty rates, and stiff government control of the media and any criticism made sustainable change a slow process. (2,9) 

Quick Facts:

Rwandan Flag, from Wikimedia Commons

At least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in the Rwandan Genocide. Today the average life expectancy is 54 (men) and 57 (women). Agriculture is their strongest economic sector, as tea and coffee are the main exports. A majority of the population is employed in agriculture, or live in a rural environment. (3, 6)

 A landlocked nation, with poor transportation infrastructure to neighboring countries, Rwanda hopes to attract investors and develop local business by setting up economic zones and developing the internet and communication infrastructure in these areas. (8)


Rwandan students, 2015, Randazzo. Photo Credit: UNICEF (7) 

Ethnic conflict was extremely disruptive to the national education strategy through the 60’s to the 90’s. However, after the genocide, the government focused on building up human capital, including increasing funding for education. In 2009, the national literacy rate was roughly 75%. Rwanda has roughly equal gender enrollment in primary school. This is promising growth. Completion of primary education fluctuates, but is often around 60%. (5, 7)

Despite 6 years of mandatory, government funded schooling, the average Rwandan will only receive 3 years of education, due to insufficient facilities and other obstacles. Infrastructure challenges are compounded by teachers’ frustration with too few textbooks that are often old, damaged or of poor quality. The teachers are also typically inexperienced, with 3-5 years teaching experience on average. Additionally, many Rwandan teachers report feeling underpaid, and if they pursue additional training or education, it is usually in a field outside of education. (5, 7)

Rwanda’s national education strategy hopes to create the foundation for it to become a center for information and communication technology. For these goals to become a reality, issues of unequal access to learning materials and teacher training and pay must be addressed. (5, 8)


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