Rwandan Women Rising: A Model for a More Inclusive Democracy?

By Kathleen B. JonesJuly 26, 2017

Rwandan Women Rising: A Model for a More Inclusive Democracy?

Rwandan Women Rising by Swanee Hunt

HER WEBSITE describes her as “a chronic activist, philanthropist, scholar, artist, and internationalist.” In her memoir, she calls herself a “zealot.” Swanee Hunt, daughter of the oil magnate H. L. Hunt, founder of a nonprofit foundation committed to social justice, former US Ambassador to Austria, creator of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School and of the Institute for Inclusive Security, is talking about her new book, Rwandan Women Rising, before a large crowd at the Cambridge Forum in Harvard Square.

“I saw what happened [in Bosnia] when zero women were involved [in the peace process]. The settlement was not a success; the country of Bosnia is still frozen, politically and economically.” That’s why, Hunt explains, having women centrally involved in post-conflict societies is critical to the success of rebuilding efforts. Looking at Rwanda “from the perspective of having worked with women leaders in sixty countries for more than two decades,” she writes in Rwandan Women Rising, “I’ve become convinced that the best way to reduce suffering and to prevent, end, and stabilize conflicts is to elevate women.”

Sharing the stage with Hunt at the Cambridge Forum is Chantal Kayitesi, a Rwandan genocide survivor featured in Hunt’s book. “Before I talk about my experience,” Kayitesi says, “I want to thank Ambassador Swanee Hunt for writing this book. It is a very important book, not only for Rwandans, but for women all over the world.”

“And Chantal,” Hunt responds, “I want to say, in a way, it’s embarrassing for me to be talking about Rwanda when I have one of the great women of Rwanda here. So, please forgive me when I say things that are stupid.”

“No, no you didn’t,” Kayitesi reassures her.

To those who know her best, the exchange is typical of Swanee Hunt. Readers of Rwandan Women Rising will find it echoed in her description of the collaborative process behind the book — which, she hopes, “lets Rwandan women speak for themselves.” And they do indeed speak eloquently throughout this nearly 400-page “guidebook for a journey toward justice,” as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf calls it on the back cover.

“This isn’t my story,” Hunt writes in the introduction. “Those who’ve lived it have had final say in how their experiences are represented for the world to appreciate.” Swanee Hunt is “a chronicler, a witness,” but a witness with attitude, and the means to effect positive social change. After reading Rwandan Women Rising, along with parts of her memoir and other biographical sources, I’ve learned a lot about her path; raised in a politically conservative family, she eventually became a fierce promoter of women’s leadership capacities and other progressive causes. I was eager to talk with this “chronic activist” about what stoked her passionate engagement with Rwanda.

“I started working in the inner city in Denver … with gangs, employment issues, homelessness, et cetera,” she tells me when we connect by phone a few days before she’s leaving for the book’s launch in Rwanda. “It was through the grant-making efforts of the Hunt Alternatives Fund,” a nonprofit foundation she co-founded with her sister, Helen, in 1981.

“We were looking for solutions and I realized we needed an inclusive approach. I developed a real mantra in my work: whatever work we’re doing, the people affected by it need to be part of the work. They know what’s going on. And what we found, in terms of the people wisest on the ground about how to design solutions, was they tended to be disproportionately women. Now, I’ve worked on this so long and in 60 countries, it makes sense to me; what we hear all over the world is how practical women are.”

In her memoir Half-Life of a Zealot, Hunt writes that, when asked how she “wound up so different from her parents’ conservative ways,” she doesn’t “fully accept the premise” of the question. Despite how starkly her political perspective diverged from her parents’ views, she remains “more surprised by how many of their bedrock attitudes and inclinations are fundamental to my thinking — particularly their insistence that every person is responsible for changing the world.” Discussing the trajectory of her life’s work, the theme of responsibility runs like a red thread through it.

From 1993 to 1997, Hunt was US Ambassador to Austria, a country bordering the former Yugoslavia. She witnessed firsthand the atrocities perpetrated when Bosnian Serb forces, with the support of the Yugoslav army, targeted Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians. By 1995, some 100,000 were killed, with the overwhelming majority of victims, around 80 percent, Bosniak. Her experiences in Bosnia, both during and after the conflict, led to the publication of three books on the subject and left an indelible mark on her.

In the introduction to Rwandan Women Rising, Hunt writes about feeling like a failure as a leader. A policy maker with President Clinton’s ear, along with Hillary’s, she failed to urge intervention in Rwanda. I asked about her sense of personal responsibility.

“I don’t want to be maudlin or have a messianic view of myself, as if I could have stopped this genocide. But, on the other hand, I must not be in denial that I was not talking to the president about Rwanda. I was talking about Bosnia. Frankly, I saw Rwanda one night on a television screen. That’s how much I was thinking about Rwanda. I was engulfed in a different genocide, the one in Bosnia … But we have to hold ourselves accountable.”

Returning to the United States in 1997, Hunt was invited by Joseph Nye, then dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, to create the Women and Public Policy Program, which she directed for 10 years. The main activity of the program was to bring women from different countries and a variety of conflict zones to Harvard to join in conversation with policy makers. The idea grew out of what she’d observed in Bosnia, and chronicled in This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace, about women working across the divide.

“I thought, I’m learning something here about how these women are working across the lines. Let’s bring women from even more different places, as different as possible … Let’s bring them from 10 conflict areas — a group of 11 women from 10 conflicts; large enough so when they go back they can have an impact. It was very successful. We started in 1999 and it’s been ongoing for 18 years. That program was my contribution to the field of international relations, international security. Let me share one small example: I vividly recall Leon Fuerth, who was Vice President Gore’s national security advisor, standing in a big room, talking to two very tall South Sudanese women. He’s straining his neck to look up and they graciously look down and are explaining why the delivery of food is causing death and destruction. Because wherever the food is dropped the armed forces come in to grab it and burn the village and take the women as sex slaves. They say there’s a bill out of Congress. It will have all these horrible consequences and there’s another way to provide aid. I’m just standing there listening, and I see Leon reach into his coat pocket, take out his cell phone, and call the White House. He says, ‘There’s a bill on the president’s desk. Pull it!’ It makes me shiver to think of all the times something like that has happened over the last two decades.”

Talking about the importance of involving those on the ground in policy-making and political transformation brings the conversation back to Rwanda, and the question of how a country wracked by genocide now stands at the top of the list of parliaments with the highest representation of women. Rwandan Women Rising charts the course of that change.

During more than a decade and a half of work with Rwandan women leaders, Hunt and her colleagues conducted scores of interviews to tell the remarkable story of women’s empowerment in the political aftermath of the 1994 genocide. At the Cambridge Forum, Chantal Kayitesi recounted her own family’s gruesome experience of the 100 days of horror, when house-to-house killings took the lives of nearly one million Rwandans — one 10th of the country’s population — and drove another two million into exile. Hunt calls it a time of “chaos that cracked open the culture” — an opening that found many women like Kayitesi, unused to leadership roles, with no option except to begin to organize to repair their lives and their society.

Without obscuring that event’s tragic scope, Hunt’s book focuses on Rwanda’s extraordinary “rebirth,” and the no less astonishing story of women’s rise into key positions. In 40 short chapters divided into five sections, it tracks the effects of “decades of violence and prejudice” fanned by the legacy of Belgian colonial oppression, which preceded the ’94 massacres. Weaving a series of vignettes drawn from extensive interviews around key themes, Hunt showcases the efforts of “dynamic, determined female leaders,” who took on “central roles in all facets of the restoration of their country.” Today, women hold 64 percent of parliamentary seats and dominate the cabinet. The book’s broadest purpose is to present Rwanda to the world as an inspiring exemplar of transformation.

When I ask her to speculate about the audience for her book, Hunt tells me, “I wrote this book and am putting my shoulder behind it, because I think it’s applicable to any country in the world. It shows how a country transforms not because of politicians, but because, in the transformation, you get the participation of the entire society.”

One of the most remarkably instructive strategies Rwandan women developed was their innovative use of the 30 percent quota written into the new constitution, insuring 24 of the 80 seats in the lower chamber were set aside for women. Aloisea Inyumba, whom Hunt told me is “the real hero of the story,” had pioneered the creation of multilayered women’s councils in the post-conflict period, a power pyramid reaching from the village to the national level. Women elected to various levels of the councils had already gained valuable political experience well in advance of the first elections held after the constitutional referendum in 2003. As a result, in 2003, “women won 48.8 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, far surpassing the newly mandated 30 percent.” And, by the next election, many women decided they’d compete for the non-set-aside seats, leaving the quota seats open for other women. As Alphonsine Mukarugema, a Parliamentary member elected in 2003 and still serving, explains in the book, “Many of us thought that to mobilize women it was important to get others to take our places. Many of the other representatives from 2003 did the same.” The result? In 2008, women’s representation rose to 56 percent — and today it’s 64 percent.

Of course, the struggle around gender dynamics continues, both within parliament and beyond. Debate persists about “the value of gender balance,” which, Hunt writes, “is ultimately not about numbers; it’s about the wisdom of seeking out people with a wide variety of perspectives, values, life stories, social roles, and other differences.” Hunt notes that in Rwanda the notion of gender complementarity, “harkening back to Rwandan tradition,” had a certain compelling role in advancing women in politics. But Hunt acknowledges that this traditional notion may also “have a major downside as the Rwandan women’s movement evolves”: “Despite the value allotted to women’s domestic roles, no major moves to update husband-wife expectations [or to address the sensitive issue of alternative sexualities] have accompanied the social and political shift toward women in the workforce.”

A considerable division of opinion remains on two issues Hunt discusses: the effectiveness of the gacaca process of accountability, which women helped design and implement, and the legacy of Paul Kagame, who has ruled the country since 2000 with what some consider “strongman” tactics.

In November 1994, an International Criminal Tribunal was created to prosecute those bearing great responsibility for genocidal events. In addition, national courts prosecuted thousands of others involved in the genocide. But because of the slowness of the formal justice process, as well as its remove from the scenes of the crimes, the traditional system of local courts known as gacaca was reestablished. More than 12,000 local courts heard more than a million cases of suspects accused of all crimes except planning the genocide; many viewed this as a local truth-telling and reconciliation process. Some scholars, such as Susan Thomson, have contended that gacaca processes “reinforc[ed] the power of the post-genocide government at the expense of individual processes of reconciliation.” Yet Hunt writes positively about the central role women played in the “more than 12,000 community courts […] set up in villages and towns across the country,” contending it was the proximity of these courts to the people and communities that allowed them to have a transformational impact. Still, she acknowledges the great risks involved in giving testimony and the losses many incurred.

Because Kagame’s rule has precluded a robust opposition, and even a genuinely free press, scholars of African politics such as Filip Reyntjens view his reign as “a clear case of hegemonic authoritarianism, where regular, seemingly multiparty elections serve only to consolidate a dictatorship.” Having successfully altered the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits, and winning the endorsement of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) Congress, he now seems poised to win another seven-year term. Although acknowledging that Kagame “holds full sway over his governing apparatus and society as a whole,” Hunt disagrees with the view that the “president wants little opposition” or only promotes “weak officials below him.” “Certainly,” she writes in the introduction, “there’s enough goodwill in the country and beyond toward Paul Kagame that I feel comfortable not dealing with the question of his political standing. But also settling such controversies is beyond the scope of this book.” She continues: “This book lets Rwandan women speak for themselves, and I won’t edit out their dogmatic assertion that President Kagame was a central figure promoting their leadership.”

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Hunt’s assessments put to rest lingering concerns about the effectiveness of the reconciliation process, or the openness of democracy in Rwanda today. In the epilogue, Hunt writes of her conviction that we can learn from “countries of every size, political structure, and economic status.” There’s no doubt that the stories in Rwandan Women Rising carry lessons about the importance of fostering and maintaining women’s leadership to achieve “enduring stability and meaningful reunification” in conflict-ridden societies across the globe.

“Might it apply even to contemporary US politics?” I ask at the close of our conversation.

Hunt concludes on a characteristically hopeful, proactive note: “I have a lot of Republican friends and I want to go to them and say, hey, why don’t we spend an evening together and talk about how the Rwanda women organized.”


Kathleen B. Jones’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Fictional International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Briar Cliff Review.

LARB Contributor

Born and educated in New York, Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for 24 years at San Diego State University. In addition to numerous academic works, she has published two memoirs: Living Between Danger and Love (Rutgers University Press, 2000) and the award-winning Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Among her numerous awards, she is a recipient of multiple grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, writers’ grants to the Vermont Studio Center, and an honorary doctorate from Örebro University, Sweden. She recently completed an MFA in fiction and lives in Stonington, Connecticut.


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