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Hadassah Presents a Conversation with Rwanda's UN Ambassador: Rwanda: A Bastion of Women's Rights

A Bastion of Women's Rights

Ambassador Valentine Rugwabiza, UN Permanent Representative of Rwanda.

November 22, 2019

By Henry Levy

The latest in the Jewish NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) Briefing Series featured a stunning and eye-opening presentation by Valentine Rugwabiza, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the United Nations. The host, at its world headquarters, was Hadassah, the premier women's organization of the Jewish people.

According to the Ambassador, in the past, 100% of land ownership was held by men. Today, 14% of land ownership is held by men, 25% by women and 60% by couples. Today, Rwanda's Parliament consists of 68% women, cabinet members 52%, and the Judiciary 47%, all the highest level for women in all of Africa. It is remarkable how much progress there has been for the empowerment of women in Rwanda in the past 35 years when the Tutsis faced a horrendous genocide and women were targeted for rape and killing. In 1994 alone over 200,000 women were raped in Rwanda. Compare that to Sierre Leone and Yugoslavia, each of which experienced about 60,000 rapes from 1991-1992.

Rugwabiza said that rape is used as a weapon of genocide. She described some of the challenges that survivors confronted not the least of which was the fact that groups of militants who perpetrated these rapes were HIV infected. Post 1994 the government had to educate its society whose social fabric was destroyed and whose survivors were traumatized. The women of Rwanda were extraordinary. They came together to build a new society. The crimes were Rwandan upon Rwandan. There were hundreds of thousands of orphans. Women headed 60% of the households. She said the genocide was political and not because of hatred of other groups. Exclusion was a tool to dehumanize people which made genocide easier. The post genocide period meant new images were needed focusing on inclusion. This inclusion was economic, social and political. A new constitution, established in 2003, granted equal access for women to have decision making power and called for a minimum of 30% participation for women in all government departments and for budget decisions. There was zero tolerance for discrimination based on gender, religion and sexual preference. It is amazing that Rwanda, in addition to the written word, has implemented these policies, and Ambassador Rugwabiza is proof positive of this.

So, what is the state of Rwanda – Jewish relations? The Ambassador said they were robust, solid and excellent. The Israeli Embassy was opened in April 2019, the 25th anniversary of the genocide. Both countries are cooperating on health care, agriculture and technology. There is a synagogue with a permanent Rabbi. There are direct flights between Rwanda and Tel-Aviv. There are many visiting Jews which helps create a dynamic experience. One commonality between the two countries is the joint understanding that the security of the people and the country is not merely military and cannot be outsourced. Rwanda will never count on the United Nations for their security. They learned in the worst possible way, as they lost over one million people as the UN stood by and watched the genocide. In fact, the first thing that the UN did during the genocide was to leave.

When the Ambassador was asked why Rwanda built itself up when other countries have not, she answered that there was no substitute for political leadership. Rwanda has a population of 13 million. 52% are women and more than 65% are under 30 years of age. This helped to contribute to a new dynamic without the influence of the genocide. Most of the people only know of a peaceful Rwanda. Their education is at a high school level and is competitive cooperating with universities such as Carnegie Mellon. The African Institute of Mathematics is located in Rwanda. Some enemies still exist, such as the masterminds of the genocide and terrorists operating in Uganda and nearby regions who still nurture an ideology of hate.

Valentine Rugwabiza was appointed Rwanda's UN Ambassador in 2016. She served as Minister for the East African Community since 2014 and remains a Cabinet member of the Rwandan Government. From 2005-2014 she was Deputy Director-General of the World Trade Organization and prior to that represented Rwanda at the UN Office in Geneva and was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Switzerland. Add to that she holds a Master of Science degree from the National University of Zaire. Just another typical Rwandan girl.

Ambassador Rugwabizia was a riveting speaker who educated all the attendees about what an amazing country Rwanda has transformed itself into in so short a period of time. It was very fitting indeed that Hadassah, another example of amazing women taking charge and doing good deeds, sponsored this event.

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