Women hold nearly half the seats in Rwanda's parliament, the highest percentage of women lawmakers in the world. One result is legislation that increases the rights of women and children in a society that traditionally discouraged women from speaking out. Cathy Majtenyi visited Rwanda's parliament and files this report for VOA.
In Rwanda, a lush green country in Africa's Great Lakes region, women hold 48.8 percent of seats in Parliament and 34.6 percent of the seats in the Senate.
Rwanda's constitution calls for at least 30 percent of women to be represented in Parliament, the Senate, and other levels of government.
Speciosa Mukandutiye is the newly-elected president of the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians.
She explains that constitutional quotas have been exceeded in Parliament because Rwandan society and culture are changing; especially in the way women are viewed. "Gender equality is not deep rooted in our culture. Traditionally, women were supposed to be housewives. Their role was to take care of their husbands and produce children. It was a shame to appear in public and make your comments," she says. "Our current policy is that that has to change: women have to contribute to national income. That is among the priorities of our forum: to make women come out and show their talents and leave behind this behavior of depending on others and to build their spirit of self-reliance."
Mukandutiye and others say one factor in the recent empowerment of Rwandan women is the 1994 genocide, in which Hutu extremists killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Many women were left widowed and became the primary breadwinners for their families.
Rwanda's parliament building still bears the scars from that terrible time but the government and society are determined to move forward, including in the area of women. They make up 52 percent of Rwanda's population.
Member of Parliament Agnes Nyirabagenzi says having such a large percentage of women lawmakers enables Rwanda to put together laws that help women.
She refers to a draft bill dealing with sexual violence against women as an example. "The idea was born by the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians. They observed that there was no law to punish people who commit sexual violence against women. We formulated that draft law, we brought it before the parliament, we sought support from our male colleagues, and we are sure that that law is going to be passed."
Other progressive legislation includes a law that enables women and girls to inherit property.
But women still have a ways to go, says Jane Mutoni, acting coordinator of the Forum for African Women Educationalists' Rwanda chapter.
She says that while the 30 percent quota has been achieved in higher levels of government, there is still a lack of women in local government, especially in rural areas. "We don't have a bigger percentage of women educated to take up those posts, because to go for the district level administration, you need a certain level of education. So even the few (women) we have can't go there. They lack self-confidence, assertiveness, and leadership qualities."
But for the time being, Rwandan women continue to make inroads in the country's highest seats of power.