Luisa Garcia was a 2018 African Great Lakes Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation.
This has been a historic year for American women in politics. But it’s Rwanda that has the largest share of women serving in a country’s legislature, at 64 percent. Now, women there are changing a country ravaged by genocide.
Musabyimana Marie Gaudence, a farmer and member of a women’s cooperative, said she’s fortunate to be alive after ethnic extremists swept across the country in 1994. In just 100 days, they slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people. There were 300,000 to 400,000 survivors, most of them women.
Gaudence told CBS News that after the mass killings, many women felt alone but learned to become closer to their neighbors. Today, the women of Rwanda are rebuilding their country from the fertile ground up.
The U.S. non-profit Humanity Unified teamed up with Aspire Rwanda, a local non-governmental organization, to teach female farmers not only how to grow crops, but how to grow a business. Gaudence said she hopes women can produce enough food to boost their incomes and help develop their country.
Joy Rwamwenge, who runs the Women’s Opportunity Center in the eastern district of Kayonza, said women like Gaudence are part of a movement that’s transforming Rwanda.
“From ashes you are bringing people to laughter, to being happy, that is adding value to one person that adds value to another person,” Rwamwenge said. “You are turning around the past, which was ugly to a better economy and a better community.”
Survivors come to the Women’s Opportunity Center to work together and learn how to sell the crops they harvest, as well as baskets that they weave. A single basket can take up to one month to make and sell for less than $30.
One woman named Grace Muteteri said basket weaving has helped the women at the center pay for things like school fees and medical insurance.
“There are times they break out into singing and that is therapy. They forget they have no brothers, no sisters, some of them have no families,” Rwamwenge said.
Nearly 25 years after the genocide ended, Rwanda has become one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. From rural areas to government, women in Rwanda are leading the way to the recovery of their nation.
“The farming woman in Rwanda is the hardest working person,” said Dr. Gerardine Mukeshimana, who holds a seat in Parliament, overseeing the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.
She believes cooperatives play a crucial role in empowering women.
“That is where people are learning the farming skills, the organizational skills, marketing skills, leaders skills because we want these women to take leadership roles,” Mukeshimana said.
Meanwhile, Gaudence is passing on the skills she has learned to women in her village, teaching them how to create and sell jewelry and other handcrafts. She said that working together gives them hope for a better future.
“I would describe a Rwandan woman as a very courageous woman,” Rwamwenge said. “These are women that went through so much, but they have bounced back. They have a past that is very hurtful, it is very painful but they have said, ‘Whatever we went through will not stop us from reaching out for the best.'”