A quarter-century after the genocide in which ethnic Hutu extremists killed as many as a million minority Tutsis in approximately 100 days, Rwanda is a country reborn. How that happened is a story of resilience — and of the unexpected benefits that can come from unimaginable tragedy. It is also, as a panel at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum explored on Tuesday evening, a story of the women of Rwanda.
“How Women Saved Rwanda,” co-sponsored by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, and the Center for Public Leadership, brought four female survivors of the Rwandan genocide to the Institute of Politics yesterday. After Samantha Lakin, a Ph.D. candidate at Clark University who has worked in Rwanda since 2013, provided a basic history of the tragedy, the survivors took over, explaining the remarkable rebirth of their country of origin and the scars that remain.
“We had our darkest moment 25 years ago but together we rose back up and moved forward,” said Yvonne Umugwaneza, a mental health and community and social work advocate. Today, as she and her colleagues explained, Rwanda has re-created itself as a country moving toward gender equality.
“Our country is really remarkable,” said Providence Nkurunziza, who counsels orphans and widows affected by HIV. “This is something we are proud of,” she added, noting the often inaccurate public perception of contemporary Rwanda as being in crisis. “And we have to raise awareness of that too.”
The origins of this remaking lie in the genocide itself. As Umugwaneza explained, more men than women were killed in 1994. Although women were also slaughtered and brutalized, “We had many more women who survived than men, so these women worked together for the country,” she said.
Almost by default, added Marie Carine Boggis, a higher education advocate and public speaker, “Rwanda went from being a traditional society to having women take over leadership roles.”
This progress has grown on itself, creating a cultural shift. Women “tend to want to be what’s missing. We tend to fill the role that’s empty in our lives,” said Boggis, citing the preponderance of women-led families, as well as cases of young women who took on the role of mothers for even-younger orphans, creating new kinds of families and social supports. “Children who grew up that way realized a woman can do anything,” said Dydine Umunyana, a motivational speaker and the author of “Embracing Survival.” “It created that strength in young girls. We kind of learned from that tragedy.”