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Female-Majority Parliament Hopes to Lead Rwanda Forward

Last week, Rwanda became the first nation to elect a majority of women to its legislative assembly. It has been a long road since the 1994 genocide, when many women were raped or widowed. Some in the country hope that having more mothers in parliament will help ensure peace. Thomas Rippe has the story from Kigali.

Connie Bwiza Sekamana will join 44 other women in Rwanda's next parliament. Together they will form the first female majority in the world.

"The women of Rwanda, as tradition and culture has put, they have always been in the backyard," she says. "And now they are coming to the limelight. And they can express themselves."

Sekamana will be serving her third term, but her involvement in Rwandan politics started when she joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front as a student in Uganda.

"It is actually a calling," she says. "To me I find it has something like a mission, because the Rwandan people need people to understand the realities and the history and have even a way forward."

National Electoral Commission Chairman Chrysologue Karangwa says the way forward began after the 1994 genocide, with an effort to eliminate ethnic and gender-based discrimination.

"Since 1994 our country is really focusing on gender promotion,' he says. "So in terms of gender promotion, when you have an increasing number of women, of course you are in a positive way implementing that policy. That is why we are very pleased to see that the number of women in our parliament is increasing."

The 2003 constitution guarantees 30 percent, or 24 of the 80 seats in the chamber of deputies, to women. Women's groups around the country decide who gets the seats.

As a member of Rwanda's transitional parliament in 1999, Sekamana led the fight to secure those seats.

"Women have never been exposed to the public political positions," she says. "So we need affirmative action. So through this affirmative action we said it is the only way that women can come out and get in public and get ideas."

This year an unprecedented 20 of the 53 seats reserved for Rwanda's political parties went to women. And one of two seats reserved for youth went to a woman.

These seats are not directly elected by the people. Instead voters choose one of the parties. The National Electoral Commission then assigns seats based on the percentage of the vote won by each party.

The ruling RPF, for example, won 78 percent of the vote and was awarded 42 seats. All parties submit a list of candidates before the election. In the case of the RPF, candidates one through 42 will get seats in the next parliament.

Protais Rumanzi of the Electoral Commission points out that the majority of women in the parliament reflects Rwanda's population.

"Because they have been, a long time ago, through traditional rulers, through the colonial period, and even during the first and second republic women were not considered," he says. "And now it was time to consider their number, and that number is powerful. And then you have to implicate them, include them in the national activities."

Sekamana says that development in Rwanda is not possible without women.

"So if you are someone really thinking about sustainable development, how do you leave a bigger part and a major part of society, who can model the children right from the upbringing as a small baby up to someone grown-up," she says. "So that was unrealistic, leaving the women behind."

Sekamana is a mother of three boys. But while some working mothers find it difficult to balance career and family, Sekamana connects the two.

"Our families are very important and fundamental," she says. "I am sure we could not be doing much for Rwandan society if we are not caring for our families. Our children, our husbands, our relatives, they mean a lot and they are very important in the whole process of what we are doing. Because what we do, it is for them. And they must see that what we are doing, it is good for them and for the rest of the Rwandan people."

But how do the men in parliament feel about being overwhelmed by women?

"Actually I am happy. I am happy that I will be surrounded by many women," says Francis Kaboneka, who is currently serving as one of the two youth representatives, and will join the next parliament as a regular member. He says women participate on equal terms with the men, and that they bring their own perspective to the debate.

"If I may say, they are peace lovers, compared to men," he says. "Naturally they are kind, they like their children compared to men. So, because of that they are likely to protect their children, protect them from wars and whatever."

Sekamana says women in parliament have successfully pushed for stronger laws against gender violence and for the right of women to inherit property.

South Africa may elect Africa's first woman president. Could the same thing happen in Rwanda?

"It is possible. Why not? It is possible because for us, as a country we have opted to believe in merit and ability," Sekamana says .

Sekamana says women in government are an example to women who succeed in other areas of society. Can women run a successful business? Can women excel in schools? More and more Rwandan women are asking, Why not?