This International Women’s Day, we are celebrating the wonderful women of Azizi Life, Beeutiful Creations, and our artisan partners! First, we’ll take a brief look at where the roots of this day began, before considering where Rwanda is today in terms of gender equality.
New York, March 1908: The city serves as a rallying point for women across America to demand better pay, shorter working hours, and the right to vote. As they march through the city streets, little do they know that their actions will ripple outward and prove to be the forerunner of a global movement. The first National Women’s Day was observed across the US the following year. In 1910, a conference in Copenhagen comprised of over a hundred women from seventeen countries, including the first three women elected to the Finnish Parliament, unanimously approved a proposal to establish an International Women’s Day. In doing so, they spearheaded a movement for equal rights and universal suffrage. Fast forward to February 1917: women in Russia protest and strike for ‘Bread and Peace’ against the backdrop of war. Four days after the protest, the Czar abdicated, and Russian women were granted the right to vote by the provisional government. The movement continued to gather momentum. In 1975, the United Nations designated the 8th of March as a time to celebrate women and push for equal rights across the globe.
Kigali, July 1994: RPF forces have captured Kigali and overthrown the extremist government. A war-ravaged nation eviscerated by the Genocide against the Tutsi begins the process of picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild society, one broken family, one ruined house, one destroyed farm, one derelict school, one devastated business at a time. It was in this violent crucible of change that women’s and girl’s rights began to brew. The Genocide against the Tutsi proved to be the horrifying catalyst that led to a shift in women’s responsibilities, as women found themselves transcending the confinement of traditional domestic roles. For them and what was left of their families to survive, women had to fill demographic roles that men had previously occupied, requesting social, legal and economic rights so that they could participate in income-generating activities and political representation. Paul Kagame, leader of the RPF, and the government that he would go on to lead recognized that women would have to be equal architects of change in re-building the nation.
Rwanda, 2009: Rwanda comes second only to Sweden in gender equality, according to the Social Watch Gender Equity Index, blazing a trail ahead of both France and the United States.
Rwanda, 2015: women hold over 60% of seats in Parliament. Girls are equally expected to attend school, and women have the right to inherit and own land and property. There is still a gender gap in public sector higher education, notably in engineering and science, but urban women are making the most of new opportunities to study in private higher education institutions; this is still largely inaccessible for the majority of rural women. Enrollment continues apace at the Akilah Institute for Women, a college born from the desire to connect Rwandan women with long-term employment opportunities.
Present-day Rwanda: Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and women are credited with building Rwanda from the ground up. With both a gender monitoring office and a Ministry for Gender and Family Promotion, it is clear that gender equality is still very much on the national agenda. The government is committed to eradicating gender-based violence, and a plethora of NGOs have sprung up around the country to promote the rights of girls and women (see our list of top organizations working to this end, at the end of this post). However, the fact that the government needs to push for progress in this area and the fact that such NGOs exist is indicative of, among other things, the relatively high prevalence of domestic violence that many women still face.
Azizi Life is committed to supporting both men and women in achieving their full potential. Here is our very own Jeannine Umutoniwase, CEO of Azizi Life, talking about women’s experiences in Rwandan society:
“Based on the fact that girls and women are now treated as the same as their brother in terms of education, leadership both in public and private institutions, decision taking and making, heritage of their parents’ possessions, leading and being in charge of their families, I can happily say that there has been progress and Rwanda continues to work hard to ensure that this milestone is protected and growing.
I personally wish that gender-based domestic violence would be taken seriously – that those abusing girls and women are punished so that everyone thinking of doing it can learn and commit to not even think about it. Also, courses could be introduced in schools on ending gender-based violence and discrimination so that people grow with the culture of equality.
My family was always supporting and encouraging me to take all available opportunities and realize my dream of becoming a person who contributes to my society. Over the past 10 years I have been working hard on becoming the person I am today, however without supportive people around me and Rwandan policy that was eradicating discrimination against women and empowering them this was going to be impossible.
I hope that my two daughters will be successful in their studies and follow their dreams. Jessica would like to become a pediatrician and I will do all I can to help her achieve this dream. I will support Rica in this way too, basically supporting them in a positive and constructive way.
I would like to see all of the women that Azizi Life works with thriving and helping their families and neighbors through job creation. I hope that they will be great role models in their communities. This will enable us to continue to grow in our work and reach more women.”
Natalie Nenly, Manager of Beeutiful Creations, an Azizi Life partner:
“In Rwanda, women’s rights have significantly improved and are known by women as well as men. Women didn’t used to know about their rights but now they do, and they have started to make sure that their rights are respected.
I think more progress needs to be made in educating young women about self-reliance; young women need to know that they are able to work and support themselves without having to always depend on men.
It was not easy to get where I am today, I had to start all over and learn from zero, but it was and still is an incredible journey. Ten years ago, I couldn’t imagine having this position. I was still in high school.
I believe that Beeutiful Creations can help the women we work with to succeed, providing them with an opportunity to show what they are able to do, giving them opportunities to support and develop themselves along with their families.”
If you would like to know more about Azizi Life initiatives that are supporting and enabling women, and if you would like to donate, please click on any of the following links:
Adult Literacy Program – enabling women to access the gift of literacy, offering them new opportunities.
Financial Literacy Program – enabling women to access credit and savings, as well as knowledge in utilizing savings and credit that will help them take control of their future.
Multiply Artisan Income x 10 – A 10x increase in income would make an amazing impact on the artisans, their families, and their communities. Our existing artisan partners would have consistent work. With income they can rely on, they would be able to plan and save for the future, improve their homes, and boost their secondary incomes. Their children’s education and health would be even better-supported, and they would grow as leaders and contributors in their communities. We would also be able to expand our work into new artisan communities, partnering with them for positive change.
Of course, every time you purchase one of our artisan partner’s beautiful products, you put fair trade income into their hands and their future.
As promised, here are our top picks for organizations working for gender equality in Rwanda:
Rwanda Women’s Network
Women for Women International