Last semester, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Rwanda, Africa. It has taken me a while to sit down, reflect and write this blog post, but I think it’s important for me to talk about this experience, because it has changed my perspective and outlook on life; I will be a better person because of the individuals who I’ve met and the individuals that I’ve grown with. Here is a journal that I wrote in the middle of my semester that describes an important moment of learning:
Last week, I went to a TIG (Travail d’Intérêt Général) camp. After the Rwandan Genocide, perpetrators were put on trial during something called the Gacaca courts. Many served sentences in prison, but after prison the Gacaca courts implemented the idea of TIG camps. These camps are meant to serve the community as part of one’s sentence, to right one’s wrongs by giving back to the very communities that these individuals decimated. I was pretty apprehensive going into this camp, as I was about to meet people who took millions of innocent lives, but then something happened. As we walked in, about one hundred men and women walked out, clapping, singing, dancing, and standing in front of us. My academic director translated for me what they were singing. They were saying, “we have changed, our hearts have changed, our mindsets have changed, but not everyone understands.” We were able to ask the members of the camp anything we wanted about what happened during the Genocide, what they did, why they did it, who they are now, how they face their families, their communities, the families of people they killed — anything. These people, and I say people and not perpetrators because they are people, stood in front of us and bared their souls. During the Gacaca courts, they stood in front of their communities, the same places where they murdered, and admitted to these wrongs. At the end of the questions, one man stood up and asked us what we’re going to bring back to America, what we learned so far from Rwanda and how we are going to speak about the Genocide, about what happened, about the people that we’ve met, the testimonies we’ve heard. I raised my hand and spoke of the hope and resilience that I’ve seen in the eyes of everyone I’ve met, of how I’ve learned from my host Mom, Dad, little sister and brother how incredibly important community is, how much hope everyone has for their lives and how hard working they are, how life is undeniably hard, but that with the love they have for each other, for their community and their country, nothing else matters. I spoke of witnessing an immense amount of vulnerability and beauty and that I’ve never felt more human in my entire life. Most of all, I promised that I would always look at the love in someone’s heart before judging them, before placing a label on them. After speaking, a man and a woman sitting in front of us looked at me with the most hopeful eyes I had ever seen and gave me a thumbs up, a smile from ear to ear, pointed to their hearts, then pointed to me.
To comprehend the forgiveness and love that has happened in this country is almost impossible.
Yesterday, I realized what I want to do with my life. I want to work in Post-Conflict areas and address the population in Post-Conflict communities that the government fails to provide aid to: women. Never have the words “rape is a weapon of war,” and “being a women in war is more dangerous than being a soldier,” been more real to me, whether in Rwanda or Uganda. Asking questions about how aid is provided to women who are traumatized from the war and the pain and suffering they endured, and hearing them refer to it each time as a “gap” in the reconstruction of society, feeling that the government has left them behind, breaks my heart. I will absolutely be back here one day.
I didn’t find a lot of time to self-reflect on my days in Rwanda, as every day was different and every day, I faced new challenges, but that day, October 8, I recognized my passion for women, peace, and conflict work. Fortunately, I was able to act on this passion and conducted research on Assessing Women’s Empowerment in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Progress and Challenges. My inspiration came from the fact that Rwanda is seen to be pro-woman, as it has the highest number of women represented in Parliament compared to other countries. And, although much research has been done regarding the various policies on gender equality in Rwanda and the progress that the country has made post- genocide, little has been done assessing the implementation of these policies on local women. I studied the effects of the post-genocide social reforms focused on gender equality and assessed whether these national reforms have an effect at the local grassroots level. Through various informal one-on-one interviews with people in institutions that have an effect on this policy implementation, and focus groups with the Iyange Girls Group, Muhanga Single Mothers Group and The University of Kigali’s chapter of the Girls’ Leaders Forum, I learned an immense amount about gender equality in post-genocide Rwanda.
Here are just a few descriptions of the individuals I met during my research:
Ms. Denyse Nikuze, the Headmistress of the Bengerana School, spoke to me of the Bengerana project. The Bengerana project was started by 32 women and men in Jabiro District who were concerned with wretched conditions in which many poverty-stricken or low income Rwandan people are living. The project’s main mission includes agricultural and vocational training for community members in the Jabiro district. The association has also built the Bengerana primary school. Ms. Nikuze spoke to me of the work that the Bengerana Project does with single mothers in the surrounding community, bringing them together in an association that offers them support and training for agriculture, sewing and weaving. These single mothers do not have the means to support their children through schooling, so the Bengerana Project has helped them to pay some school fees for their children as long as they are working in agriculture, weaving and/or sewing. “What men can do, we can do, whether it be cultivating, construction, working in a garage or driving a motorcycle. We have each other, so we will see where we are going together” (Florence, Inama y’abakobwa “Single Mothers,” 11/11/2017). The Bengerana Project not only provides these women with access to skills and jobs, it provides them with a support system, as, in most cases they have no support from their families or the men who impregnated them.
The Girls’ Leaders Forum at University of Kigali was a very special group to interview for me. I immediately thought of the club that I started, She’s the First Dickinson, which shares many of the same values of GLF, ultimately trying to create a space to openly talk about the triumphs and hardships of women & girls globally. The University of Kigali chapter of GLF has a campaign that they run at the beginning of every semester called “Umwali Ubereye Urwanda,” meaning “Young Lady, Beauty of Rwanda.” The purpose of this campaign is to help integrate incoming freshman girls into the University, sensitizing them on how prevalent teenage pregnancy is, holding workshops on proper care/ contraception and awareness. This campaign also focuses on sensitizing the community on their masculinities and femininities, advocating for a campus community that is inclusive and equal in all senses of the words. The girls also spoke to me of the HeForShe campaign at their University. Kismat, the National Public Relations Chair for all GLF chapters, told me how the Campaign sparked some debate on campus about positive masculinities. “Some students were not understanding the difference between gender equality and gender balance, and so thought that female students were trying to surpass them, threatening their masculinities.” Through this campaign, the Girls’ Leaders Forum helped to sensitize the campus community on why women’s empowerment is so imperative to all of society. “Women’s empowerment is not a woman’s issue; it is the entire world’s responsibility. It will be an empowerment brought by men and women supporting each other” (Kismat, GLF).
Today, poverty in Rwanda remains a key constraint as women still constitute the majority of the poor; women experience limited capacity for employment and income-generating opportunities because of gendered roles and responsibilities. My research concluded that that there are many gaps in the implementation of various gender equality policies and that it is imperative that positive masculinities and femininities be evident from a young age in order for a patriarchal society to be open to the idea of women’s empowerment.
Although harsh realities still exist today for women in Rwanda, the most inspiring aspect I discovered was the will of these women and girls. Every single individual that I spoke to was filled with hope and love for this country, regardless of their current realities. Watching these women acknowledge each other — acknowledge their hopes, dreams, fears, scars — was incredibly beautiful. These women reminded me of the strong and resilient women that I surround myself with here at home, women that push me every day to be a better version of myself, women who unconditionally love and support me for nothing less than exactly who I am, women who have truly shown me the beauty in unity, passion and love.
Each and every woman that I had the privilege to speak to in Rwanda showed me what it means to forgive, what it means to love, what it means to be vulnerable, what it means to simply be human. These voices are strong, resilient, unapologetic, and beautiful. I will forever recognize their strength. Ubuzima ni bwiza (life is beautiful).
Written by Olivia Lyman ’19, International Studies Major
May 8, 2018