This isn’t a typical blog post. It’s a little long and very serious, and I’m not going to offer you any quick action points at the end. Trying to offer short and simple answers to GBV would be futile and insulting, reducing a complex, multifaceted issue and oversimplify the experiences and mindsets of everyone involved. That’s not to say there isn’t a solution or that you can’t find ways to be a part of that solution, but, honestly, I don’t feel qualified to tell you to go out and take an action. I do, however, believe that awareness is vital, and I believe that ignoring problem simply because we don’t expect to find easy answers to it is a serious exertion of privilege.
Leading up to International Women’s Day, Peace Corps Rwanda is engaging in sixteen days of activism against gender based violence (GBV), from 14 February to 1 March. I think it’s important to be informed about gender-based violence—no matter where you live—and so I want to take a few minutes to talk about it.
Rwanda regularly makes headlines for its gender equality. It leads the world in women’s involvement in government: two thirds (64%) of parliamentarians are women,* compared with only 20% in the US Congress. There are as many girls as boys in primary and secondary schools, and the majority of women participate in the workforce6. Undergirding these metrics is a commitment to gender equality at the highest levels of government and a strong interest in it at the grassroots level.
However despite this commitment, gender-based violence (GBV) is prevalent throughout the country. Rwandan law defines GBV as “any act, perpetrated because of the victim’s gender, which results in bodily, psychological, sexual or economic harm, or in the deprivation of freedom or in negative consequences within or outside households.”3
In most cases, the victims** are women and the perpetrators are men.
Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is the most common form of GBV. According to the UN World’s Women Report, over half (55%) of Rwandan women will experience physical or sexual violence within their lives. Of the women who report IPV within their lifetimes, the majority of them also say they experienced IPV within the last twelve months.
For context, consider the statistics cited for Europe in the same report. Here, we see the number of women who experienced IPV within their lifetimes is much higher than the number of women who experienced IPV in the last 12 months. This shows that in Europe, most women faced with IPV are able to escape the situation. In Rwanda, by contrast, most women who experience IPV continue to face it repeatedly throughout their lives.7
One reason for this is that for Rwandan women, it is especially difficult to leave abusive relationships. Most women in Rwanda are unwilling to seek support for intimate partner violence because they expect severe legal, social, and economic repercussions if they do.
Legally, women worry about losing custody of their children if they pursue a divorce.
Socially, they fear the stigma that surrounds IPV. One study2 notes that “[w]omen feared revealing the abuse to anyone . . . as this would bring shame to the family and worsen their overall life situation.” The same study2 points out that women consider seeking support from formal institutions to be “equivalent to revealing the abuse to the entire community, thus bringing shame to the family.”
Economically, many women are dependent on their abusers. As one married woman said, “Where [can I] go when I bring my husband to prison? I still have to bring him food while he is not bringing anything to the house. I better keep silent about the problems in the house.”
Patriarchal Culture and Colonialism
Beneath this violence is a culture in which men have historically been dominant. The Rwandan government recognises that gender inequality is a deeply rooted aspect of Rwandan society. The National Gender Policy4 asserts that
Rwandan society is characterised by a patriarchal social structure that underlies the unequal social power relations between men and women, boys and girls. This has translated into men’s dominance and women’s subordination. Gender inequalities have not seen [sic] as unjust, but as respected social normality [sic].
In the view of the Rwandan government, this male domination is largely a result of colonization4. In pre-colonial Rwanda, women had a greater role in household decision-making and greater control of domestic resources. They had primary responsibility for farming—though men also helped—and in a purely agrarian economy, women’s control of agricultural and domestic resources translated into significant social and economic power.
But colonial rule shifted the balance of power away from women.
Belgian colonisers instituted a sudden change to a “monetary economy based on paid employment and a formal education system.” Whereas money hadn’t been used in precolonial Rwanda, it suddenly became a “key resource”—one that only men could access and control. Further weakening their position, women were unable to access education5 or open bank accounts without permission of their husbands9.
In the government’s view, the psychological effects of colonisation exacerbated gender-based violence directly: “[T]he violence and brutality undergone by men in their contact with European rule was reflected in their attitude towards women and children.”4 While the policy does not delve deeply into the evidence for its view, it’s plausible that colonialism continues to contribute to gender inequality today.
Regardless of its causes, the cultural expectation that men should dominate women is widespread in contemporary Rwanda. The National Policy Against Gender Based Violence recognises as much, holding that “Gender-based violence . . . serves—by intention or effect—to perpetuate male power and control.”3
A study of attitudes toward gender roles in 2010 found that most women and men agreed that “A man should have the final word about decision [sic] in his home” (52.8% and 65% respectively).1 Most women (53.3%) and nearly half of men (45.5%) also agree that a wife “has to be submissive to her husband and accept everything.”1 Close to a third of both men and women (32% and 28% respectively) agreed that “A wife who earns more than her husband provokes violent [sic].”1
The UN estimates7 that roughly half of men (55%) and a quarter of women (25%) agree that a man is justified in beating his wife if the wife does one of the following: burns the food, argues with her husband, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses to have sex with him.
The results from another study1 are grimmer still: most men (60%) and even more women (70%) agree that “[violence against women] is needed to control a wife and women sometimes deserve to be beaten.”
Steps Forward: Policies and Metrics
Although gender-based violence is a significant problem in Rwanda, it’s one that the government has been actively working to address throughout the last decade.
In 2008, Rwanda passed a law making all forms of GBV illegal. By the time of one study in 20101, 85% of participants understood the law, and many believed it would have significant social impact.
In July 2010, the government released a comprehensive National Gender Policy, which sets out a vision of a gender-equitable future, an assessment of opportunities and challenges, and a set of targets and responsibilities distributed across sectors of the government.
In 2011, that policy was followed by a National Policy Against Gender Based Violence, which expresses the government’s commitment to eradicating GBV and lays out strategies for doing so. The Policy Principles section of that document is of particular interest at a moment when gender-based violence within the American government is a matter of international attention.
The Government of Rwanda does not condone any acts of gender-based violence;
The Government of Rwanda recognizes gender based violence as a violation of human rights;
The Government of Rwanda strongly believes in, and promotes gender equality, equity and empowerment of women as a crucial human resource for social and economic development;
The Government of Rwanda is committed to using its fullest powers to fight, prevent and provide response to all forms of gender-based violence in society; and
GBV interventions and responses must be conducted in all social, economic and political sectors.
In addition to these policies, in a part of the world where comprehensive statistics in general are hard to come by, the Rwandan government has collected an impressive amount of information about gender disparities.8 Gender equality targets are integrated into the metrics and evaluation for social services like schools and health centres, providing gender-specific data regarding malnutrition, various diseases, school enrolment and dropout rates, and teenage pregnancy from each school and health centre in the country.
The government also tracks indicators that are not tied to a specific service, such as the hours that men and women spend on unpaid labour, the rate at which male and female heads of houses have electricity, and the overall access men and women have to smartphones and other technology.
This abundance of data provides a solid footing for combating GBV.
More Steps Forward: Programming
In addition to policies, Rwanda has a wide range of programmes to address gender-based violence.
Gender is a cross-cutting issue in the school curriculum, meaning that teachers are expected to integrate it into any lesson where it’s relevant. For example, in a lesson on community resources, a teacher would be expected to address gender-specific resources like girls’ rooms (a government-mandated facility in each school where girls can deal with menstrual hygiene. Though implementation is slow, the Ministry of Education puts constant pressure on schools to integrate gender equality into school policies and classroom instructions.
The Rwanda National Police have also been leaders in addressing GBV at the community level.
Throughout the country, women facing violence can seek support from One-Stop Centres, which provide free integrated medical care, emergency accommodation, psycho-social support, and legal aid to victims of GBV or domestic violence. The One-Stop Centres are organised by the police and have been expanded over the past decade with the goal of putting a One-Stop Centre in each community health centre.3
The police also run community-organising programmes to prevent and address GBV. The campaign, supported by the UN, consists of “a club, a mentorship program and a 3 months [sic] training module,”10 allowing police to disseminate information, train community members, and intervene in relationships where GBV is present.
Last year, the Rwanda Peace Academy organised a training on sexual and gender-based violence for military, police, and civilian officers from five countries in the region. The training focused on understanding the humanitarian impacts of GBV during and after conflicts, and on strategies to prevent and address GBV in conflict zones.11
In addition to the government-run programmes, various NGOs focus on grassroots prevention of GBV. One organisation deserves particular attention: The Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC) focuses on engaging men to support gender equality and prevent GBV.
RWAMREC’s study on attitudes toward gender and gender-based violence is exceptional in providing a clear window into the cultural attitudes, beliefs, and histories that affect gender in this country’s unique context. RWAMREC also runs a programme called “Boys for Change” that engages secondary school boys in gender equality, healthy lifestyles, and sustainable development.
In addition, they offer a programme called Positive Masculinities focused on “sensitising men towards gender equality by challenging traditionally held notions.”9 As a part of this, for example, women and men are asked to switch household chores for three days.
RWAMREC constantly challenges men and boys to question their preconceptions and strive toward a more positive masculinity that aligns with Rwanda’s cultural ideals of unity, equality, and dignity for all people.
*This does not extend to all areas of life; women are a minority in other high positions. (Check out this table.)
**In Rwanda, the term “survivor” is reserved for those who survived the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. In the context of GBV, the term “victim” is preferred.
Also: A huge thanks to Claire Pennington for co-authoring this blog post with me. You should check out Claire’s blog.
2Aline Umubyeyi, Margareta Persson, Ingrid Mogren and Gunilla Krantz, “Gender Inequality Prevents Abused Women from Seeking Care Despite Protection Given in Gender-Based Violence Legislation: A Qualitative Study from Rwanda,” (2016).
5John Mutamba and Jeanne Izabiliza, “Role of Women in Reconciliation and Peace Building in Rwanda: Ten Years After Genocide” The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (Rwanda). May 2005, http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan031033.pdf.
9Nishtha Chugh, “A drive to beat Rwanda’s gender-based violence,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/nov/22/rwanda-gender-based-violence.
10“A partnership to end Gender-Based Violence,” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Rwanda, June 19, 2014, http://www.rw.undp.org/content/rwanda/en/home/presscenter/articles/2014/06/19/a-partnership-to-end-gender-based-violence.html.