Seventeen years ago last Sunday, the Rwandan genocide came to a bloody end. In one of the of the most horrifying 100 days in human history, inter-ethnic tensions stoked by political propaganda escalated into full-scale civil war between two tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Over the span of 100 days, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The two major ethnic groups had lived peacefully for generations, but decades of colonial rule and exploitation built the foundations of tensions that ultimately reached a boiling point in 1994, fanned by radio campaigns inciting violence. Bands of Interahamwe, a group of Hutu rebels armed with machetes, roamed cities and the countryside, killing any Tutsi or Tutsi-sympathizer they encountered. People fleeing the slaughter sought refuge in schools, churches and other places of worship, assuming them to be safe havens, only to be massacred within. To this day, many of these buildings remain as they did during those 100 days, a reminder of the horror of war.
As in many conflicts, women were particularly vulnerable, targeted for brutal sexual violence as a tool of war and instrument of genocide. Between 250,000 to 500,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the genocide. According to UN Special Rapporteur Rene Degni-Segui, "Rape was the rule and its absence the exception." The campaign of sexual violence had a devastating impact on the demographics of the surviving Rwandan population. An estimated 70% rape survivors were infected with HIV, and even more had lost their homes, friends and family members in the slaughter.
After the genocide, up to 70% of the surviving population consisted of women. Despite the scale of devastation the society had endured, these women took immediate action to set their country on the path to recovery. Among other activities, they began to clean the streets, rebuild homes and adopt children orphaned by the genocide. In spite of their own suffering, women got involved at the national and community levels to set their society back on track.
To this day, it has been women who led Rwanda out of the ashes of war and into a more peaceful and prosperous future, arguably more so than any other country in the world. Though it may have seemed impossible on this day in 1994, Rwanda has surged forward to make remarkable progress with regards to social and economic development. The country is currently one of the top performers in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of international development goals established by the United Nations in 2000. These goals set a benchmark for the world to gauge progress on key humanitarian and development issues, from the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, to universal primary education and promoting gender equality, to reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability for future generations. Rwanda has shown more progress in these areas to date than most nations, developing and developed alike.
Equally notable is the high incidence of women's participation in leadership roles throughout the country, a favorite case study in the cannon of research and studies linking women's equality with economic growth and stability. A recent UN Women Report documents Rwanda's competitive advantage when it comes to the status of women and overall development progress.
Rwandan women have the highest rate of political representation in public office in the world, standing at more than 50%. This critical mass in legislative bodies allows for women to institute many legal reforms focused on the female population. According to the UN Report, female Parliamentarians have worked to improve women's economic and inheritance rights, as well as pass laws that protect women from domestic violence and marital rape. Notably, Rwanda is one of only 52 countries that has legislation that criminalizes marital rape. Furthermore, as of 2010, 33% of ministerial positions in the government are held by women. According to Oda Gasinzigwa, Rwanda's Chief Gender Minister, "It's good to recognize us. There are a lot of achievements we have registered and the good performance is attributed to the political will. The leadership has trusted us to participate in all levels of development."
These statistics suggest that investment in women's equality and creating space for women's contributions in critical social, economic and political processes is a key to achieving broader human development goals. Increasingly, research shows that investing in women and working to achieve MDG 3 - gender equality - can truly be the key to achieving all 8 Millennium Development Goals. Consider the following:
According to the World Bank, “Greater economic and educational opportunities for women mean her daughters are more likely to go to school, her babies are more likely to survive infancy and her family is more likely to eat nutritious meals.” That statement connects progress on MDGs 2, 4 and 1, respectively, all through investment in the mother. Also according to the World Bank, the children of educated mothers are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of 5 and 50% more likely to be immunized. That is direct progress on MDG 4. We also know that women are the stewards of and the closest to the environment (MDG 7), and they are the fastest-growing population infected with HIV/AIDS (MDG 6).
Returning to the Rwanda case study, we see women's engagement earning dividends across the board when it comes to development progress. Education rates in Rwanda have shown a marked increase. In 1991, only 57.9% of the population was literate, however, as recently as 2009, the literacy rate has exceeded 70%. There has also been a significant increase in the number of children attending primary school. Currently, 87.6% of school aged children are enrolled in primary school, and, must notably, the ratio of boys to girls in primary and secondary education is equal; a significant development with regards to gender equality.
There have also been noteworthy improvements in public health. Life expectancy has increased from a mere 27.1 years following the genocide to over 50 years in 2009. Rwanda has also taken significant strides in reducing maternal mortality. In 2000, the maternal mortality rate was 1071 per 100,000 live births, however, in 2010 they achieved a rate of 383/ 100,000 live births. If this improvement continues, Rwanda will be one of the few countries able to complete MDG 5, which is aimed at improving maternal health.
Women have hence made significant strides in Rwanda, bringing their nation along with them. Yet the work is not yet done. As in many post-conflict countries, gender violence has outlived the conflict that exacerbated it. In 2009, a police report revealed that every six hours, a women was raped. To its credit, the Government has worked in a coordinated effort with women's organizations to address the issue. Working together, government and civil society groups have waged public awareness campaigns in the media, developed community policing programs, and drafted a policy to explicitly criminalize violence against women beyond the provisions of preexisting national penal code. There has been a welcome and significant drop in the number of gender based violence cases reported in the wake of these interventions: 1,345 cases were reported in 2010, compared to 2,033 in 2006. However, despite this significant decrease, sexual violence still remains a problem with over three cases being reported everyday in 2010. With a sustained level of commitment to developing and implementing the kind of policy and programmatic responses that will continue to combat this problem, there is reason to hope that more progress is to come.
This anniversary, we celebrate the beacon of hope that Rwanda's unlikely turnaround provides. The nation's post-conflict recovery process proves a powerful point: that impoverished, war-torn countries can not only recover, but lead the way forward in global development progress. We celebrate its wholesale embrace of women's equality and leadership as not only the right thing to do, but also a winning development strategy effective in bringing all people out of poverty and into a more peaceful, prosperous future. As we look forward to 2015, when the world will evaluate progress on the lofty goals it has set for itself, Rwanda emerges as an unlikely -- and welcome -- contender for first place.