A female majority in Parliament – what’s the big deal?

7 Min Read

September 27, 2013 By Nathalie Munyampenda

Recently, I had an interesting Twitter exchange with a journalist who said it’s good that Rwanda has a female majority in the lower house of Parliament but we need to check “quality”.

Last week, Rwanda cemented its global number one spot with 51 out of 80 seats going to women – that’s 64%. In the last mandate, women were at 56%.

This is cause for celebration, first for women, second for the developing world. The majority is not in the UK, or the US, but in a small country in the heart of Africa that was once known as Genocide land.

So back to my Twitter exchange. The journalist said we needed to assess the quality of the women in Parliament. You know, check that the ladies were pulling their weight. So I asked him how we would assess their quality. I wanted scientific methodology, he insisted on perception.

Both male and female MPs had passed 349 laws and I was curious to see how he would assess impact. Quickly sensing a trap, he said the issue went beyond female MPs; we needed to assess the quality of all MPs, he argued. Others quickly got into the discussion and said given women were now a majority, the quota system should be removed.

Rwanda constitution’s says that either sex should be no less than 30% of all decision making bodies. It is true that the Genocide against the Tutsi wiped out a large proportion of men with tens of thousands now in prison for murder. This left a serious gap that was naturally filled by women.

But this is only half the story. All the men didn’t die, and not all are in prison. There was a conscious decision made by Rwanda’s leadership to give woman a voice. The question is has it paid off?

I haven’t studied this in detail – I invite others to do so – but in the over 300 laws that Parliament passed, Rwanda’s women, urban and rural came out on top.

Women now have the right to inherit, property and land. In Rwanda, we don’t leave our children oil fields or diamond mines, we leave behind land. So giving women rights to land was the fastest way to empower them. Women, especially poor women, are also given preferential treatment for micro-financing. Giving a woman the means to sustain herself is how you cement her right to equality. Income means freedom; it means choice.

For me, however, the most important thing about having so many women in Parliament and other key positions is we now have role models. Young girls can dream big because they have women who blazed the trail before them.

You want to fly a plane, we have a young woman who can tell you all about it. You want to write phone apps, we have a few of those. You want to write books, I can name you two dozens right now. You want to teach, we have deans and professors. You want to build a house, we have construction workers and architects. You want to cook professionally, or drive trucks, or play basketball or paint or be CEO or launch a fashion label…heck if you want to farm commercially, the Minister in charge is a woman!

The point is we have gone from very few women in positions that affected no change, to women in sitting at every desk where decisions are made. Why is this important? Who better to advocate for women then women themselves?

But back to the quota system. I recently heard Dr. Rose Mukantabana, former Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies explain it this way: the quota was established to empower women at all levels. It came along when it was most needed. And it is still needed until rural women can enjoy the same access and opportunities as urban women.

Until then, let the quota run its course and if necessary, let Rwandan men and women decide when it needs to be changed. The good news is in the direct vote (political parties), women won 26 of 53 seats, a percentage shy of 50%. So yes, Rwanda has experienced progress in all forms.

On the matter of quality, it is good to hold our elected representatives accountable. In fact as a young woman who is going to be having children soon, I sure would like the maternity bill revised. However, it is important to not hold the women accountable for “female” related laws.

If this is the case, we have gone backwards. We should hold all MPs accountable for passing laws that benefit citizens, women included. All this to say, I am looking forward to five years of a Parliament that passes laws that benefit us, yet it sure is nice to be number one for something so fundamentally important yet difficult the world over.

Let the world follow Rwanda’s lead.

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