Progress for Rwandan women in parliament but glass ceiling firm at presidency

Rwandan president Paul Kagame awarded the Gender Champion Award in 2016 alongside Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the former Chairperson of the African Union Commission, by the African Women Movement.

Rwanda’s parliament has improved its ratio of women legislators which is the highest in the world. The East African country recently elected 58 women legislators out of the 80 members of parliament. This is an improvement on the previous parliament’s 49 women representatives.

NEWS UPDATE: Final tally shows number of women MPs in Rwanda parliament up by 2 points to 66%. The 80 member House now has 53 women lawmakers

— Fred Mwasa (@mwasa) September 4, 2018

The data in the table below has been compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the basis of information provided by National Parliaments by 1st June 2018.

Rwanda also ranks highest in labour participation among women and women make up more than half of Kagame’s cabinet, but the statistics are not the true reflection of the situation in the country which has been led by Paul Kagame who has been in office for 18 years.

Human rights, legal inequality and access to justice have plagued the country’s positive record on women’s rights and have exposed the glass ceiling that is just above the parliamentary level.

Women have had slim chances of getting to the top in Rwanda’s political hierarchy as the only woman to ever rise to the topmost position was Agathe Uwilingiyimana who was Prime Minister of Rwanda in 1993.

She was assassinated on April 7, 1994, by the presidential guard 14 hours after the assassination of President Habyarimana which commenced the genocide.

Two decades later, two Rwandan women have attempted to run against President Paul Kagame but ended up in jail for various reasons which are politically motivated.

Read more about them below.

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza

Born in October 1968, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence at the Kigali Central Prison on charges of terrorism and threatening national security.

She was arrested in 2010 after she returned to her country following 16 years in exile to contest as a candidate against Paul Kagame in Rwanda’s August 2010 presidential election.

Umuhoza was the leader of the coalition of exiled opposition political groups, Unified Democratic Forces (UDF), and she resigned her work as an official of an international accounting firm in the Netherlands, where she was in charge of its accounting departments in 25 branches in Europe, Asia and Africa, to help rebuild her country.

She has worked for her party since 1997 from her base in the Netherlands and was key in the creation of the coalition to rival the dominant Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party of Paul Kagame which has no opposition in the country and was stifling dissent and persecuting opposition members.

Umuhoza was held under house arrest only three months after arriving in the country. She formed the Permanent Consultative Council of Opposition Parties with two other opposition leaders in Rwanda to strengthen the democratic process.

She became a threat to Kagame’s government since the first day of her arrival when she gave a speech at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre to honour the victims of the genocide. Umuhoza called for the acknowledgement of Hutus who also died during the genocide and justice for all to bring about reconciliation.

This speech was used as evidence for the charge of genocide revisionism which was levelled against her in court after her arrest. She was placed under house arrest in April 2010 and then detained in October with four alleged co-conspirators accused of “forming an armed group with the aim of destabilising the country, complicity to acts of terrorism, conspiracy against the government by use of war and terrorism, inciting the masses to revolt against the government, genocide ideology and provoking divisionism.”

After a long court battle including intimidation of witnesses and allegations of bribery attempts by the Rwandan intelligence agencies to rebels to testify against Umuhoza, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza boycotted the court proceedings.

In 2012 after four postponements of the verdict and the prosecution’s request for the maximum life sentence, Umuhoza was sentenced to eight years by the Kigali High Court for “conspiracy against the country through terrorism and war” and “genocide denial”.

A year later, the Supreme Court has upheld the conviction and increased her jail term to 15 years. Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is married and a mother of three. She was nominated with two other Rwandan political figures in prison for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.

Diane Shima Rwigara

Diane Shima Rwigara is a 36-year-old women’s rights activist and entrepreneur who is currently behind bars in Rwanda for alleged incitement to insurrection.

Her woes started after expressing interest in challenging Paul Kagame in the August 2017 presidential election as an independent candidate.

The daughter of businessman Assinapol Rwigara, who was pivotal in the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, distanced herself from the party after her father’s death in 2015 in a road accident which she claimed was an assassination.

Two days after announcing her candidacy, Rwigara was hit with a scandal as nude pictures believed to be hers speculated on social media. The pictures which she claimed were “manipulated” were shared widely by blogs and websites in Africa.

She gained a lot of support on social media after the scandal including condemnation of the act of online shaming. After a few days of silence, she bounced back to continue her campaign.

After picking up forms to file her candidacy, she was hit with another blow as the National Electoral Commission disqualified her with other opposition candidates for errors in application forms and inadequate signatures from the districts. Rwigara described the disqualification as a political influence.

She launched an activist group called the People Salvation Movement to challenge the Kagame regime to ensure human rights. This was immediately followed by a raid of her family’s house by the police who said they were investigating them for forgery and tax evasion.

Rwigara and her family faced series of arrests without specified charges. Separate charges including inciting insurrection, tax evasion, offences against state security, use of counterfeited documents among others were levelled against Diane, her sister Anne and mother Adeline.

She remains in prison as her trial is ongoing. Meanwhile, her family’s assets and stock of their tobacco company have been auctioned off by the country’s revenue authority which said it was recovering unpaid taxes.

The family has filed court cases against the confiscation of its assets and the sale of their stock at a much lower rate.

Civil society and rights organisations have described the arrests and intimidation as politically motivated. Amnesty International has called on the Rwandan judiciary to ensure that Diane Rwigara’s trial does not become another means to persecute government critics.

This article written by Ismail Akwei was first published on

Published by Ismail Akwei

Ismail Akwei is an international journalist, digital media and communications professional, editor, writer, arts, culture and tourism advocate, human rights activist, pan-Africanist, tech enthusiast and history buff. He has worked with multinational media companies across Africa and has over a decade’s experience in journalism.

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