Although it was a very cold day in Washington DC, on March 22nd, I was exceptionally delighted and excited to respond to the invitation from United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to attend a conference - Women Leading Nonviolent Movements.
As we were waiting to go through the security clearance process, a very humorous lady approached me and asked me with a huge smile on her face: “Are you from here?”
I replied with a smile of my own: “Why do you want to know?”
“Because you were saying hello to people you don’t know, with an open face, on a crazy cold morning, Lady!” she said, also laughing. “We rarely do that here, you know,” she continued. “You must be from Africa,” she suggested. “You people are always happy despite the hardship we read about in the news. Gosh, how do you guys do it?”
“I am indeed from Africa and specifically from Rwanda and we also get very worried about you from what we see in the news! Media can exaggerate. We are fine as you can see.”
“A few unfortunate incidents should not define who the people of a certain country are” she concluded.
“Exactly,” I commented. Many great things happen in Africa but only the bad ones make it into the news. We are trying to change that narrative,” I informed.
Then suddenly in a tone that could be misinterpreted as an attack, she asked; “Talking about great achievements, if you are from Rwanda, what are you doing here? You do not have any dog in the fight. Your country is leading the World in female representation in the parliament.”
At that very moment, my mind started to wonder. “What would she say if she knew that also 50% of the Rwanda ministerial cabinet is made up of women, and the woman right in front of her was also one of the leaders in Rwanda? What would have been her comments if she had learned that women empowerment was reached without a struggle because the Rwandan president believed, and keeps saying that involving women in rebuilding the country, ‘just makes sense’? Everything being equal, with such a beautiful story to tell, I should not have been in that particular room. I should have looked for the one hosting a panel on a theme that would read more appropriately; “The Rwandan Women Leaders’ Challenge: What do they do to deserve the trust?”
Unfortunately, everything is not equal. As Rwanda commemorates the Genocide Against Tutsi for the 25th time, as a woman, a genocide survivor, and a citizen of the World, I now feel, more than ever, that I have a responsibility to be anywhere that peace is discussed as an alternative to violence of the kind that brought my country to ashes in 1994.
In fact, when I decided to respond to the USIP invitation, I was not intending to go there to brag about how Rwandan women are lucky to have an empowering leadership while my sisters on the panel were telling stories of their hardships and struggles for basic human rights. No. I just wanted to listen to them, eventually, hug them and inform them that even though Rwandan women presently enjoy that empowerment, they were also in painful situations in the past.
Before and during the genocide against Tutsi, Rwandan women knew the worst of human rights abuse. They were humiliated on a daily basis, unjustly incarcerated and tortured just because of who they were - Tutsi. During the genocide, our grandmothers, our mothers, aunts, and cousins were raped in public - sometimes by men young enough to be their sons. Babies were forced out of the wombs of those who were pregnant using spears and other tools before forcing flashlight batteries, needles and pieces of bottles into the victims’ private parts. My own mother, 64 years old, was cut alive into pieces before being thrown into a deep hole with my cousin, his wife and children, and our neighbors from elders to babies. Most of the women in the country from the Hutu ethnic group, forced into exile by the extremist government, were often used as human-shields and sex slaves. Twenty-five years later, some of those women still living in exile in those deadly forests, especially in Congo, are now made to watch their daughters as young as 9 years old being impregnated by negative forces and eventually dying from those premature pregnancies or suffering from fistula, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases with no medical care available.
When Mahdouba Seraj from Afghanistan spoke about hoping for peace for too long- like our mothers did, while women are threatened and sometimes shot on the streets, or when Scovia Arinaitwe talked about how she was incarcerated and tortured in Uganda right after a c-section, similar images of Rwanda’s sour past rose in my mind and brought back a bitter taste in my mouth. I suddenly felt like screaming, echoing Seraj’s closing questions: “This is it? When will women’s struggles end?”
It was equally troubling to watch a young woman like Isabella Picón from Venezuela, advocating for peace like women of my generation did. Why couldn’t she be given a chance to enjoy her beautiful, tender, and inspiring age? I was also angry to see Judy Richardson on her own country’s US stage speaking of the fights for human rights since 1963. Does it really make sense that Syrian Mariam Jalabi, who has a great degree from McGill University, has to spend hours and hours in conference rooms claiming obvious rights instead of being given the opportunity to use her knowledge for the betterment of this World we share with men?
Why did this World’s setup put women like Kathleen Kuehnast, Maria Stephan, and Marie Berry in the position of going to school to “focus” on conflict, violence and the like, instead of mastering in Sharing Peace for a change? Maybe then, Bonnie and Michon who now use media to promote peace, would have the opportunity to produce a documentary about the first woman on the moon for instance? Where are all those HeForShes to reassure women of the World that this is NOT it?
The Author, Claudine Delucco Uwanyiligira is the Deputy Director General - Rwanda Broadcasting Agency