Women, move out and go get your own!

The catchword, ‘Rwanda 50: A Journey of Resilience’, can be found everywhere you turn as we celebrate a half century of sovereignty. While it is extremely difficult for me to find something positive about last fifty years, except perhaps the last decade and a half, I truly believe, fingers crossed, that the next fifty will be absolutely amazing.

While everyone has enjoyed Rwanda’s socio- economic transformation, no sector of the population has enjoyed such a change in fortune as the womenfolk. They’ve progressed from being seen simply as wives, mothers and domestic help to being seen as equal partners in the home,  as leaders and even as captains of industry. They’ve truly enjoyed the fruits of liberation and independence. Or have they?

Well, if you look at the way things were for women in the early 1990’s and compare them with the way they are now, it’s a quantum leap. Case in point; in 1995, if a woman was seen dressed in a skimpy outfit, drinking a glass of wine in a nightspot she was automatically viewed as an ‘Indaya’( prostitute).  Fast forward to today. In the same scenario, she isnt automatically classified as a fallen woman but perhaps a professional, empowered woman enjoying a tipple as she waits for friends to arrive. That huge change of attitude is certainly revolutionary. But if you think that the Rwandan women’s liberation movement has reached its zenith you are sadly mistaken.

While women here have certainly climbed to the top of our political and business ‘hill’, I feel that so much more is needed before we are able to say that our nation is truly equal. Our Constitution, which mandated a form affirmative action, has forced women to come to the fore and forced men to accept that change.

However, while this affirmative action has changed people’s attitudes to women in the workplace, I feel that the next step is going to be the hardest. And the biggest impediment that we shall face as a nation is balancing our culture as Rwandans, and our aspirations as a nation. While our culture is an excellent resource, we must also recognize that it is quite a hindrance as well.

Let’s look at one example. As soon as I graduated from university I was gently, but firmly, pushed out of the nest and encouraged to find my own path. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t making tonnes of money, to become a ‘man’ I had to get my own address. Plus, if I was to enter the dating game, I needed to be able to say that I “paid rent”. If I didn’t have my own spot, I wasn’t a ‘man’. When a young, FEMALE, relative of mine attempted to do the same, members of the family got into a lather, arguing that it was “unseemly”.  She stuck to her guns and they eventually relented.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why a fully grown woman, making hundreds of thousands of francs, thinks its okay to live at home. I can understand if she is staying home to help pay the bills. That is noble. But if she’s simply enjoying a rent-free, bill-free existence, I find it hard to respect such a woman. The cultural norm that states a woman should only leave her parent’s home to go to her husband’s is extremely archaic and, in my humble opinion, harmful. How can women ask to be treated as equal, if they have never sweated over household bills like their prospective husbands? What life skills are they getting?

I’ve met many young women who want to spread their wings but feel unable to go against the prevailing culture. They are worried about what their parents, or the rest of society, will think. To them I say this, freedoms are not given freely.

When I look across the border to Uganda, I see a society that has changed fundamentally. Women are just as likely as men to live by themselves. The same thing can be said about Kenya. Why not us? The societies in these two nations are similar to ours so we cannot say that we have special circumstances.

There will be a need for a critical mass of young women choosing to ignore our un-modern belief system, before we can talk about real equality. We will talk about ‘independence’ and ‘liberation’ in vain until we have a country where the aspirations of both women and men are the same. Until then, it’s all lip service.

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