Rwanda's First Daughter On Women's Rights: We're Not There Yet

Photo: Courtesy Of The Author
 “The emerging woman ...will be strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied... Strength and beauty must go together.” ―  Louisa May Alcott 

As we come to the end of a month celebrating and honoring the economic, political, and social achievements of women, we are reminded once again of one truth that continues to stand out: We are not there yet.  

When I reflect upon my own experiences and life lessons, I think of my mother, Jeannette Kagame, who has helped change the women of Africa for the better, starting with me.   

The greatest lesson my mother taught me, as her daughter both in blood and spirit, is the truth of what makes someone beautiful. “Beauty," she told me, "comes from within. Everything on the outside, everything the eyes can see, will fade away in time. The beauty that lasts comes from a woman's spirit, her mind, and her soul.”   

As the first lady of Rwanda, my mother applied this lesson beyond her own family, particularly with her philanthropic work. Her Imbuto Foundation’s original mission was to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to help the many widows and orphans who survived the devastating 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Today, it has expanded to help the women and girls of Rwanda seize the opportunity to transform their lives and shape their future. 

Imbuto (meaning seed) focuses on planting seeds of greatness, which it does through scholarships and awards ceremonies, literacy programs, poverty reduction, and the distribution of empowering technology throughout communities. Imbuto encourages young girls to believe in their abilities as equal citizens, and to demand nothing less than excellence from themselves. 

This is particularly important in the context of Rwanda, where, in the aftermath of the horrible genocide of 1994, wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers found themselves picking up the pieces. Women were left in charge of homes and communities, raising the children and working to rebuild their country.  
Photo: Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images,

Before, women often retreated to the background, having been told (with gentle condescension) to sit on the sidelines and wait for the men to sort everything out. After, this was no longer an option.  

Rwanda’s rebirth meant that no Rwandan was to be left behind. 

Having survived a terrible situation with their dignity intact, women now had a chance to make their own choices, and become strong, powerful forces to be treated with respect.  

The prominent role of women in Rwanda today is the result of conscious decisions made by the post-genocide leadership, which honors their importance and supports their active participation in all aspects of the nation's development.   

Twenty years later, the women of Rwanda now enjoy unparalleled success, while so many still struggle for recognition worldwide. An impressive 64% of parliamentarians are women — the highest proportion of any parliament in the world. Gender rights are enshrined in the constitution, and women now have the legal right to inherit land, share the assets of a marriage, and obtain financial credit. 

A traditional Kinyarwanda saying defines the Rwandan woman as umutima wu rugo, which means the heart of the home and nation. It was their compassion, their willingness to forgive the unforgivable, their courage to rebuild, and the strength of their spirit that contributed to the transformation of Rwanda.  

This is the inner beauty that my mother told me about. 

The story of women in Rwanda has proven that how we empower women contributes to the evolution of modern society. But ultimately, this is about more than one nation. We are a global community, and what happens in one region impacts others. There is, of course, much more that needs to be done. Too many women achieve less than they could, and feel like much less than an empowered human in the eyes of many — including themselves.   

As Hillary Clinton said: “Too many women in too many countries speak the same language — of silence. We need to understand that there is no formula for how women should lead their lives. That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family.” Every day we must strive to undo the harm of inequality towards women. 

At the end of Women's History Month, in the shadow of International Women's Day, as we stand on the shoulders of giants ― those who have come before us, and those who live among us ― it’s a good time to take a moment and reflect on all we have achieved. But, not for too long. After all, we are not quite there yet.

Ange Kagame is the second child and only daughter of Paul Kagame, the sixth and current President of the Republic of Rwanda and the leader of Rwanda’s majority party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Her mother, Jeannnette Kagame, is the founder and chairperson of Imbuto Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the development of a healthy, educated, and prosperous society. Currently, Ange is a major in political science and a minor in African studies at Smith College, pursuing her philanthropic interests in female empowerment, education, sports, and public health. Ange intends to lead other young adults around the world to pursue socioeconomic change and job creation.

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