Women at the forefront as Rwanda heads to the polls

Rwandans will vote next week in parliamentary elections set to bring women to the forefront. Rwanda has the world’s highest proportion of female political representatives and it’s an achievement women are determined to build on.


Marie Médiatrice Izabiliza carefully lays the table in her family home in the Kabuga neighbourhood outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali, setting down china cups, teapot and fruit before settling down to talk.

“When we started promoting women, men thought women wanted them to cook and take care of the children; to carry them on their back – that was the perception,” said Izabiliza, a former mayor and parliamentary candidate for next week’s elections, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

A civil society activist, Izabiliza spent much of her time working on women’s rights. Over the past few years, this 46-year-old mother of three has become increasingly active in politics.

As have many women across this central African nation.

Rwanda is the only country where females represent the majority of parliamentarians – a little-known fact in the international community. With 56 percent of parliamentary seats held by women, Rwanda has the world’s highest proportion of female political representatives, topping Sweden, which ranks fourth – after Andorra and Cuba.

In the 2013 parliamentary elections, around six million people are eligible to cast their ballots, with direct voting on Monday for 53 seats, followed by a further 24 seats reserved for women to be chosen on Tuesday by women's groups and local councils.

Rose Mukantabana, the former speaker of parliament, believes she was judged on the merit of her political track, not her gender.

“When I was the speaker of parliament, I didn't feel that criticisms were aimed at me because I am a woman. Observations were made about the parliament in general,” said Mukantabana.

Top ranks in gender representation, not multiparty politics

But while Rwanda tops the world in political gender representation, its track record on multiparty politics is a lot less robust.

Politics in Rwanda has been dominated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of President Paul Kagame since 1994, when his rebel army unseated Hutu extremists and ended a genocide that left close to a million dead.

Over the past  two decades, Kagame has overseen rapid economic expansion and Rwanda today is one of the three best places in sub-Saharan Africa to do business, according to the World Bank.

But on the political front, the ruling party has held sway, with many Rwandans – especially in the rural areas – unable to distinguish the RPF from the state apparatus.

Independent candidates complain that while there is no official government policy of repression, there have been several cases of over-zealous local authorities preventing them from campaigning.

In the countryside outside the capital of Kigali, Rwandan women are keenly aware of their role in building their country’s future.

“It is important to encourage women to come forward and educate them, so that they emerge from ignorance,” said a participant at a rural women’s gathering.

At the Izabiliza family home, tea-time is over, the table has been cleared and the parliamentary candidate moves to a bedroom that has been turned into a makeshift office.

“I often work here. I put the table,” she said, pointing to a little table propped by the bedside. “It is my office when I need to work.”

Izabiliza knows that if she is elected in next week’s elections, there will be plenty of work ahead of her.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app