‘There Is No Hope To Get a Better Life’

How Rwanda's remarkable, two-decade march from genocide has left women behind.

Twenty years ago, more than half a million Rwandans lost their lives in 100 days in one of the most horrific genocides in history. In the aftermath of the genocide, President Paul Kagame has garnered international acclaim for his bold and innovative development policies: His stated goal is to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by the year 2020. Under his leadership, Rwanda has reengineered its agricultural sector, invested heavily in infrastructure, and partnered with foreign investors to produce impressive gross domestic product (GDP) growth. In Kigali, the capital city of nearly 1 million people, posh coffee shops and world-class hotels are popular among wealthy locals and expatriates. Women sweep the streets every morning, city workers regularly apply fresh paint to road medians, and plastic bags are outlawed.

Because of its visible progress, Kigali has been called “the cleanest place in Africa.” Journalist Stephen Kinzer, in his book on Kagame’s revitalization of the country, effused how “Rwandans are bubbling over with a sense of unlimited possibility.”

The advancement of women is touted as a chief priority of the government’s post-genocide development strategy. The Kagame regime has implemented myriad policies and programs aimed at promoting women in society, and by many measures, these programs have succeeded. Rwanda has more girls than boys in primary school, progressive protections against gender-based violence, and a rapidly declining fertility rate. Most famously, women comprise 64 percentof Rwanda’s national parliament — the highest level in the world. This has led to a widely publicized sense of optimism about the bright future of Rwanda’s women.

But this is only one side to the story, the side that the Rwandan government wants journalists and international agencies to hear and report. Outside of the modern Kigali neighborhoods and beneath the country’s orderly surface, things look quite different. Armed security officers stationed at regular intervals around Kigali ensure the city is secure, but also reflect the repression needed to maintain this security — a repression with other dimensions, found in tight (and at times bizarre) regulations on people’s everyday lives. Groups of young men stand idle in front of storefronts, seemingly socializing but really just killing time — they have no work to do. In crowded markets or bus stations, these unemployed youth beg desperately for jobs.

As for Rwanda’s women, many of them sell fruit and vegetables from baskets by the side of the road, but their work is illegal, and they flee at the first sign of police. Others line the dimly lit streets at night in Kigali’s seedier neighborhoods, selling sex — sometimes for next to nothing — to keep their children fed and their rent paid.

In 2009, I set out to investigate the remarkable ascent of women in Rwandan politics for my Ph.D. dissertation in sociology. I interviewed dozens of impressive, passionate women in Rwanda’s government, who articulated their firm commitment to their country’s future as a prosperous, gender-sensitive, and stable nation. As I returned to Rwanda several more times in the following years, I also began to interview poorer women with no involvement in politics in order to understand how women’s impressive political gains at the national level had impacted other lives. The contrast was striking: In interviews with more than 100 Rwandan women of a range of ages and backgrounds, I found that, growing up, many women believed they could get a “good job” if they studied hard and did well in school. But school was expensive and many were forced to drop out. Today, most cannot find jobs outside of the informal or agricultural sector. They are frustrated that excessive taxes and interference from local officials prevents them from ever being able to get ahead.

In short, Rwanda’s women are not all thriving — and signs that things will get better anytime soon remain painfully absent.

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“Yvette” is a 24-year old street vendor. I met her in the back room of a noisy bar, in a poor neighborhood of Kigali. Growing up, she dreamed of becoming “a leader, a high minister.” Instead, she was forced to drop out of secondary school after her first year, as her family could no longer pay her fees. A few years later she got married and had two children. Constantly hearing about the government’s promotion of self-reliance and entrepreneurship, she decided to start her own business. “I tried to use my thinking, my ideas, to do something that would keep me going and pay the education fees for my kids,” she explained. Unable to afford the high overhead cost of renting a stall in a market, Yvette decided to start a roadside business selling sugar cane and cassava roots out of a woven basket.

She quickly discovered that selling vegetables on the street is illegal. Deemed incongruous with the government’s desired image of a clean, modern, and orderly country, plain-clothed police regularly seized her vegetables and tossed them into the street. Sometimes, they handcuffed her and dragged her to prison for days or even weeks. She has lost track of the number of times she’s been arrested, but estimates it is somewhere around eight. She recently gave up selling vegetables in favor of selling clothes, because when the police inevitably throw her inventory in the street, “even if a car runs over the clothes you can still clean them.”

“There is no hope to get a better life,” she said when I asked her whether she thought her situation would improve; whether someday she might have a more secure job. “I don’t have the freedom to work, and sometimes you are really hungry and your kids are really hungry but you don’t buy food because you didn’t get to work that day.” She’s from a poor family, “and the poverty from my family is following me, and I am going to pass it to my kids.”

Yvette’s experience is a common one. While tensions from the genocide have begun to fade, the country’s pristine public image masks new strains:Though a handful of Rwandans have gained wealth and new rights since the genocide, many more ordinary Rwandans — particularly women — feel shortchanged.

A few weeks after I met Yvette, I sat down with “Devote” early in the morning at a small restaurant in the bustling Remera neighborhood of Kigali. While she sipped from a bottle of Primus — a popular Rwandan beer — she told me the story of her move to Kigali. Her husband was killed while serving in the Rwandan army, so she came to the city with her daughter to claim the widows’ benefits to which she was entitled. Trained as a gardener, she had heard about the government’s new development initiatives and was optimistic about her chances of finding work in the gardens of Kigali’s affluent. Jobs, however, were few and far between. Then, after a boyfriend got her pregnant, “life became a bit harder.” Devote stared at the floor as she described to me how she — destitute, with two children to feed and rent to pay — began sleeping with men nightly for as little as $1.50.

Devote has been unable to escape life as a sex worker. She was thrown in jail four times, each time for several weeks, leaving her children to be cared for by neighbors. She was given just one cup of corn per day and subjected to occasional abuse by police. In jail “you don’t have human rights,” she said. “You suffer. They cut your hair. They treat you as a human being with no value.”

I interviewed dozens of women with similar stories. Rather than “bubbling over” with excitement about the future, women who are unemployed or working as street vendors, domestic servants, and sex workers shared stories about their inability to prosper within the confines of the new Rwandan state. Women in urban areas without access to land often find themselves forced to engage in these forms of informal work, which is at odds with the image the Rwandan government attempts to present of itself as a miraculous recovery story — and which can land women in jail.

The state’s arbitrary and draconian local regulations — including substantial fines for such transgressions as walking barefoot, wearing unclean clothing in public, or failing to own a dining room table (ostensibly to prevent people from drying their dishes and utensils on the ground) — add an additional layer of struggle for those trying to ascend the economic ladder. These regulations aim to improve hygiene and provide a cosmetic upgrade to rural and urban life, assuring visitors and foreign investors that Rwanda really is a rapidly modernizing society, but in truth, have also made achieving the promise of a middle-class future all but impossible for some trapped beneath them.

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To be sure, Rwanda has made tremendous progress in many areas since the genocide, and Rwandan women are, in many ways, in a better position than they were two decades ago. Certainly elite women in government, NGOs, and business have more rights and financial stability than ever before, and there is some hope that their progress will eventually trickle down to the masses. Perhaps most importantly, the country has not seen a resurgence of violence.

Yet for ordinary Rwandan women, paying for rent, school fees, and food is extremely difficult, as “good jobs” are scarce. Beneath the façade of gender equality and strong development in general, discontent is slowly growing — a discontent exacerbated by young men, too, who find themselves unemployed and desperate.

This growing unhappiness raises the specter of social instability in Rwanda, something neither the government nor its international backers want. Indeed, if the country can’t repair the shortfalls of the policies that built its shining present, inequality and popular dissatisfaction are likely to grow. The better future promised to all Rwandans may never come.

Marie Berry is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA, where she is researching the effects of mass violence on women's participation in politics.