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July 22nd, 2008
Ladies First
Interview: Ambassador Swanee Hunt

July 21, 2004: Ambassador Swanee Hunt, Director of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, discusses the role of women in rebuilding Rwanda with host Mishal Husain.

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Mishal Husain: Swanee Hunt, welcome to WIDE ANGLE. We’ve just had a glimpse in the film about the transformation taking place in terms of women in Rwanda. How is it that that’s happened in a relatively short period of time?

Swanee Hunt: I’ve been to Rwanda three times. And each time it’s been very heartening to see how women are advancing. But the first time I went it was to keynote a conference that, in fact, was being organized by the American embassy.

They brought African women leaders from several countries to Kigali. And that was in 2000, just six years after the genocide. And it was extraordinary to see the leadership that Rwandan women were displaying. When I’ve talked to them about where that leadership came from, they talked about having lived in the bush and fought and mobilized and organized for many years before the genocide. And, in fact, one of the challenges they have is to make sure that women who are coming up after them are equally strong leaders.

Mishal Husain: You’ve got to know the country well over the years. How different is what we see today in Rwanda compared to the role of women before the genocide?

Swanee Hunt: I wasn’t in Rwanda pre-genocide. But when I talk to the women now, they are very methodical as they tell me they’re going back and looking at laws, introducing legislation from either cabinet positions that they’re in or as senators or other members of parliament. The example that you all used in the film was about property.

Photo of Swanee Hunt
But another senator talked to me about requiring that girls stay in school, that all children stay in school. The girls are being taken out to work in the fields. And that will have tremendous consequence for women in Rwanda if she’s able to get that legislation passed.

Mishal Husain: So, it’s quite a contrast then to the more traditional kind of society that existed in Rwanda ten years ago?

Swanee Hunt: That’s right. Women ten years ago were much more of the household property than is the case now. It’s not to say that if you go backcountry you don’t also find that. And there’s a tremendous education campaign that is needed to apprise women of their rights.

But that was the method that was used by the women leaders right after the genocide. They set up councils at every level. And women in the villages elected representatives to be on these women’s councils. And then a group of those women’s councils elected representatives to be in another council all the way up to a national level. And that was a tremendous experience in learning to be a leader.

Mishal Husain: Would you say that this is a change that’s been born out of necessity in Rwanda? That because of the genocide, women were thrust into these roles that they otherwise wouldn’t have had?

Swanee Hunt: It has been born out of necessity. But I must add that there were also some important models and other forces. The women in South Africa were coming along before Rwanda. And they were a very important part of creating a constitution that gave the most remarkable rights for women in the region. And there were thousands of women in South Africa who were involved in the creation of that constitution and also then in the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both serving as the judges who were listening to the confessions, but also serving as witnesses, talking about what had happened.

Mishal Husain: Do you think though that the extent to which we see women taking the lead in Rwanda today is an example to other countries in Africa? Things like property rights aren’t at all as developed in other parts of Africa as they’ve become in Rwanda.

Swanee Hunt: Rwanda is an example in terms of the transformation of the rights of women. But if you talk to almost any Africanist at the State Department or the World Bank, when you say the word Africa, they think women. I mean, Jimmy Carter told me this once: That he was on a visit, and he and Rosalynn were walking through the fields of the farmer of the year of a sub-Saharan country. And he’s a farmer, of course, a peanut farmer himself.

So, he started asking questions. “How many acres do you have? How many crops do you grow in a year, et cetera?” Every question, the farmer of the year would turn to the woman who was walking a few steps behind. And she would answer the question. And he and Rosalynn, at the end of that visit, were just shaking their heads and saying, clearly, she was the real expert there.

Mishal Husain: It’s still a jump from that though to the point of women as political leaders, women right at the forefront of their country, which is what seems to be happening in Rwanda.

Swanee Hunt: Women are definitely moving into the position of the forefront. And they’re needed there to create a very solid democracy. Because, you know, hatred did not cause the war in Rwanda.

The war caused hatred. But the war itself was caused by power greed, a grab for power. And you’ve got to have very firm civil society — and by that I mean independent media, independent courts, a thriving NGO community — and you’ve got to have democracy at the grass roots level. And so, women play a very important role not just in the elected positions, but throughout the community as they demand the politicians to behave themselves, frankly.

Mishal Husain: And to what extent has that actually happened in Rwanda? Is there any worry in your mind that this has happened so fast that, perhaps, it’s not sustainable?

Swanee Hunt: Time will tell. One of my last conversations as I went to the airport was with a woman who has had two ambassadorial posts and now heads up the Rwandan Women’s Caucus. And we were talking about whether or not she and the other women leaders would be successful in bringing along the next group.

That is what’s needed to be sustainable. And there is where it’s incumbent on us as privileged countries to do what we can to bring Rwandan women over, not just the current leaders, but young women — to bring them here to go to school, to be fellows at universities, to give them opportunities because they will go back and sustain the leadership.

Mishal Husain: The reason I was asking that was because we have seen instances, notably here in the United States during the Second World War, when many women stepped in to do men’s jobs. But then after the war, society reverted to what it was and to the more traditional pattern. Is that something that could happen in Rwanda?

Swanee Hunt: It could happen. It’s a classic pattern after a war. On the other hand, there’s a time lag here.

Rosy the Riveter, who went back into the home in the Eisenhower era and started being a chauffeur for the kids, that happened immediately after the end of World War II. And that’s not what we’re seeing in Rwanda with this ten year gap.

Now mind you, 100,000 of the men have been in prison. And as they come out of prison and also return from inside Congo where they have been fighting, they will want to find their place back in the society. One of the concerns in South Africa is that as women have become so strong, it may have fueled anger on the part of South African men leading to rampant increase in rape. And so you can end up with some very tragic, unintended consequences when you have successes like these women have. It’s not easy to calibrate.

Mishal Husain: Do you think Rwanda’s women might well have to fight to keep their place once we’ve seen more men entering back into society?

Swanee Hunt: I’m sure they’ll have to fight to keep their place.

Mishal Husain: We’ve seen the change in women’s lives at the grass roots and in the new tasks that they’re taking on. But what about the political transformation that’s taken place?

Swanee Hunt: I was just in Rwanda in Kigali in April and did a training with about 70 women leaders. And they were senators, governors, ministers, as well as business leaders. And it was fascinating to watch. Some were so comfortable in their skin. And others were really feeling their way and had an awful long distance yet to come. I took the microphone and walked around from one to another and said, “Hi, I’m Swanee Hunt. And who are you? And what are you doing here?”

And then they would practice saying, “Hello, here’s my name. And I represent a constituency in the Butare area. And I’m here because I care very much about blah, blah, blah.” And that was really hard for some of them because they didn’t want to be self-aggrandizing.

Mishal Husain: But in the process were they getting used to the new power?

Swanee Hunt: It’s very much what it is about. Even though they had been elected, they were intimidated by me. And, in fact, one of the methods that I’ve used working with women in conflicts all over the world is to bring in policy makers, either ambassadors or colonels in the Army or generals, and ask them to work with the women, especially to have men sitting opposite them, just like this, asking them questions about their work and then coaching the women on how to answer with a strong voice and a clear message.

Mishal Husain: It’s still quite extraordinary to reflect on their achievements though; the fact that within these ten years, they now make up half of Rwanda’s parliament.

Swanee Hunt: They’ve come a long, long way. And they have earned that right by serving in the society even when they weren’t in the political leaderships. They have been extremely active in mobilizing support both inside of their country and internationally.

These women are extraordinary. I mean, I’ve talked to one woman, Aloisea Inyumba, who organized a plan for the adoption of 500,000 orphans around the country. And she told me, “You know, I had a slogan: Every mother takes one no matter what. And you don’t ask is this child Hutu or is this child a Tutsi. And you just take a new child. That’s the only way we’re going to get these orphans adopted.” And she launched this campaign.

This was immediately after the genocide, just placing these children, these orphans all around the country. And she said, “I lay in bed at night, staring at the ceiling wondering if I was doing the right thing.” Now, you have to understand, this would be the equivalent of asking Jewish families to take in a German orphan immediately after World War II or vice versa, taking Jewish orphans and spreading them out among German families. It is almost incomprehensible.

Mishal Husain: But then how is it that Rwandan women seem to have that capacity to forgive?

Swanee Hunt: The capacity to forgive is not just about Rwandan women. It is about a willingness of women all over the world to work across conflict lines, to say, “Yes, I’m a Serb. Or yes, I’m a Muslim. Or yes, I’m a Croat. But I’m also a mother.”

“Yes, I’m a Hutu. Yes, I’m a Tutsi. But I’m also a woman.” And by creating that common identity they’re able to cross lines that other people find very, very difficult.

Mishal Husain: And that men find particularly difficult?

Swanee Hunt: Well, I think that the stereotypes that we have, they fall short. Because, of course, there are many men that are more forgiving then some women. And there are some women that are more belligerent than men. But in general, the stereotypes are accurate.

Mishal Husain: So, how important are women then in the overall process of reconciliation in Rwanda? This is a country that’s trying to put the past behind it and looking forward to a more peaceful future.

Swanee Hunt: I asked President Kagame several years ago about any differences between Rwandan women and Rwandan men with the goal of reconciliation. And he said, “You know, after the genocide, the women made a lot of noise. They were very emotive.”

“They were crying. They were wailing. And then they rolled up their sleeves and got to work in a way that the men were not able to do.” Now, I think this is a very interesting question about whether or not women’s emotionality is actually a help in energizing them and keeping them able to act and able to move forward and dealing with depression by getting the anger out and getting the sadness out.

Mishal Husain: And you think they are better at doing that than men?

Swanee Hunt: That’s my experience.

Swanee Hunt is Director of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Mishal Husain: Does the political agenda change once you have women represented in government to the extent that they are in Rwanda?

Swanee Hunt: If we look at governments around the world, we see that the higher the women’s percentage is in parliament, the more funding there is for education and for health care as compared to buying arms, for example. So, we have every expectation that the political agenda will be affected.

Mishal Husain: It sounds like a solution for many of the world’s ills. You just elect more women and lots of things take care of themselves.

Swanee Hunt: Well, people smarter than I am have said that.

Mishal Husain: Do you think women have been helped in Rwanda, in terms of getting further ahead in politics, just by virtue of the fact that they ended up being the majority after genocide and fewer men were around?

Swanee Hunt: Well, that’s certainly a factor. But I would say that there are many other factors that are more important. For one thing, there has been a lot of international pressure of late.

And it’s been building to increase women’s role in post-conflict and actually pre-conflict situations as well. The U.N. has passed Security Council Resolution 1325 calling for women to be fully included. The G-8 passed a similar resolution. The World Bank has been working on language and the Organization of American States. There are a lot of institutional powers that are starting to see the wisdom of getting women in.

Mishal Husain: And do you think that’s filtered down to Rwanda or has this been a home grown movement, something that started from the grass roots up?

Swanee Hunt: A movement like this never starts from the top and trickles down. It’s more recognition of the homegrown effort. If the women weren’t there organizing and being spectacular, I would say even dazzling in their efforts, they wouldn’t have caught the attention of the diplomats and the aid workers who’ve been coming in who then pass the word back to New York and Washington: “Gee, if we want to have success here, we’d better support these women.”

Mishal Husain: Is there a lesson there for the United States do you think, in terms of women’s representation in government?

Swanee Hunt: I’m glad you asked about that. Because we, with our piddling 14 percent, are certainly the pot calling the kettle black when we rail at other countries about not having women’s voices strong enough. The lesson here is that, in the United States, the women who do make it into Congress are ones that have been working at the grass roots.

Interestingly, the men in Congress tend to have come in through law degrees and the like or have decided to be a professional politician whereas in the United States, women generally have been organizing in church basements. And they’ve been lobbying for special ed programs in their state and the like.

Mishal Husain: It’s a different kind of person?

Swanee Hunt: It’s a quite different kind of person and a different kind of path.

Mishal Husain: In Rwanda, it happened partly because of affirmative action. I mean, is that something, controversial though it is, that might make a difference in the United States?

Swanee Hunt: You know, 90 countries in the world have some kind of quota or some kind of affirmative action for women in the political process. Americans are allergic to quotas. They cringe at the thought of affirmative action for women. I don’t think it’s going to happen here.

Mishal Husain: But would you like to see it happen?

Swanee Hunt: I’d love to see it happen.

Mishal Husain: How important do you think women role models, whether it’s in business or in the political arena, are to the whole process of women’s emergence? We see several women in the film who are clearly taking a lead.

Swanee Hunt: Role models are essential. And it’s not just Rwandan women as role models for other Rwandan women. Laura Bush is critical, Hilllary Clinton. I worked with Hilllary all across Eastern Europe. And she was like an icon there. People said, “If she can do it, I can do it.” This was in the post-Communist era. So, it’s the external as well as the internal role models that are significant.

Mishal Husain: Is that what might make a difference in terms of the importance of getting younger women involved? Because the women that we see in the film in Rwanda are all ones who lived through the genocide and suffered through the genocide, who were very driven by it.

Swanee Hunt: Women respond very much to being mentored. They’re very relational in general. They also tend to have much less self-confidence than their male counterparts. And so there’s something of a safety in numbers.

And when they can see themselves as a part of a group moving forward, they tend to have more success. I was talking with a woman from Sweden; she was a senator. And she was saying that the same women, when they were 14 percent of the parliament, the same women acted different than when they were 40 percent of the parliament.

So, it was the same women with the same life experiences, the same values and beliefs. But when they were part of a larger group, they had more boldness and were able to speak out more.

And that’s why in Iraq, when you say, “Oh, we have a governing council of 25. But not to worry, we have three women,” well you can say, “Well, I’m very glad that we have those three women there. But we have three women sitting in a room with 22 men. And what kind of superwoman does it take to make her voice heard in that kind of setting?” So, we are stacking the deck over and over against women by having them in small percentages.

Mishal Husain: But would you advocate more representation of women whatever it takes? Or are you saying you have to look for the right kind of women leaders, the right kind of women to participate politically at a high level?

Swanee Hunt: There’s no clear answer to that question. There are many people who say, “Better to have a good strong male feminist than a woman who is going to be voting against the interests of women.” But, you know, if you look at the women in the U.S. Congress, you will find that frequently in the Republican Party, for example, it’s the women who break away from the rest of the party to vote with the Democrats on issues that will benefit women. And sometimes that’s the only time they break with the party. So, I would say that women just as women are a real value.

Mishal Husain: Now the film shows us an optimistic portrait of what’s happening in terms of women in Rwanda today. But what is the bigger picture of the country as it is ten years after the genocide?

Swanee Hunt: I asked President Kagame once; I said, “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. And you have an awful lot of power. What are you going to do to keep yourself from being corrupted?”

And he had a very quick answer. He said, “Look, we have to have a strong judiciary. We have to have a strong legislative branch. And there has to be a balance of power.” Now people from the outside have been very critical of Kagame in terms of whether or not he’s really sharing the power in the ways that he should. But I would say that women in not just his party but across the society are essential to serving more or less as watchdogs.

Mishal Husain: And yet other problems in Rwanda remain, lingering ethnic tensions for example, between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.

Swanee Hunt: There are enormous problems. In fact, one of the things Kagame said to me is, “You know, be careful as you outsiders criticize me and the way we’re running things here. Try to stand in my shoes.”

And then when I do and I look at the huge, huge difficulties that this tiny little country is facing it becomes almost overwhelming. That’s why the issue of Rwanda can’t just be some far flung thought in the minds of Americans.

That’s why people in this country need to pay attention to what’s happening in that far away place called Rwanda. Because frankly, it’s a small enough place where we can actually make a difference.

Mishal Husain: Do you think the United States has a role in helping Rwanda along the way?

Swanee Hunt: The United States has played an important role and can play a much bigger role on a go forward basis. And the citizens of this country ought to be writing to the women and men in our Congress saying, “Let’s come up with some programs that will target the development of this leadership.” Let’s see what can happen in that one little country that might have lessons for the rest of the developing world.

Mishal Husain: How great would you say the achievement of Rwanda’s women politically is? Many of them, like Juliana, who we saw in the film, weren’t elected to seats that were reserved for women. They fought their election against men.

Swanee Hunt: Right. But as the women were getting up their courage to run in these women-only elections and participating in these women’s councils, they then started running against the men in co-ed, if you will, elections. And their numbers, in those elections, doubled. So, again, this was a positive unintended consequence.

Mishal Husain: Was it harder for them to do that?

Swanee Hunt: Was it harder for them to run against the men? You’ll have to ask them. I don’t know.

Mishal Husain: But their achievement is particularly striking, given the fact that it wasn’t that they were shepherded to these posts.

Swanee Hunt: We would be very wrong to think that the women in Rwanda are in some kind of a rigged situation. They had a more even playing field and encouragement to run; that was a big, big help. But many of those seats, they were pitted right against the men.

Mishal Husain: So the women have clearly come a long way. But what about the bigger picture of what’s happening in Rwanda; how much progress, would you say, this nation’s made in the last ten years?

Swanee Hunt: You have to understand, not just where they came from before the genocide, but the trauma that they experienced during the genocide. And until you go there and really spend time, it’s very, very difficult to get a sense of who these women are, and who they were during the war as they left behind children to go and fight or, as they were victims of the war.

I met with a mother of seven children who fled into the woods when the Hutu extremists were coming into their region. And, eventually, she and the other women and children were surrounded. And they killed six of her seven children. And they left her to be raped.

And she was raped over and over for 13 days. And she would become unconscious, and then awake to find herself being raped again. And she had an infant at her side. And I met this woman and her young daughter; she has AIDS now and she’s dying. Those are the kinds of stories that you find all across the countryside.

So don’t look at those pictures of these girls working in the fields, and these women walking along with their big loads on their heads and thinking, “Oh, this is a lively, thriving place” because behind the dazzling color, there is extraordinary trauma.

Photo of Swanee Hunt

Swanee Hunt is Director of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Mishal Husain: And yet, you wouldn’t want us to think of these women as victims.

Swanee Hunt: They are so much more than victims. You can’t ignore the victimhood, but don’t stop there. And when you think about what we could do to encourage them, to educate them, to give them life, and to give Rwanda life, it is appalling to think how we will spend $400 billion on a war and call it a war against terror, when there is no war against terror link. And yet, we won’t spend the millions of dollars that are needed in a place like Rwanda.

Mishal Husain: Is it the extent of the suffering of the women of Rwanda what drives them today?

Swanee Hunt: I think that courage does grow from the suffering. I think that the trauma has a sort of hollowing out effect. And women find, inside of themselves, a greater capacity to act no matter what because they know what the stakes are.

Mishal Husain: Is that what you think is driving women in Rwanda? The reason why we see them making such strides in so many different fields?

Swanee Hunt: Well, that’s one of the reasons, because they know the dangers. But there’s also this collective power, a collective force that as women start working together, they become very encouraged. I visited a granary about six years after the genocide, and this granary was being funded, by the way, by USAID — our foreign aid program.

The title of the group — it doesn’t sound very good in English — was “Let Us Console Each Other.” They were women who either were widowed by the genocide perpetrators, or they were the wives of those same perpetrators, who are now living alone because their husbands are in prison. And these women had come together to create this enterprise. And so you find in Rwanda these small businesses, or larger businesses, that women have put together where they are actual means of reconciliation.

Mishal Husain: And yet entrepreneurs like Epiphanie who we see in the film, are still in a tiny minority, aren’t they? In terms of women who are trying to run successful businesses.

Swanee Hunt: That’s what your film says, and I have no reason to disbelieve it. But I have worked with projects all over the world and seen how relatively small grants or loans to women can lead them to a flourishing business. It’s extraordinary what women can do.

I remember talking with women in India, and in Kenya, and in Guatemala — I mean all over the world — where women have taken these loans. Their repayment rate is about 96, or 97 percent. So it’s an extraordinarily sound investment. And they’re able to, out of that small loan, feed themselves, feed their children.

Mishal Husain: How important is it that once you have political empowerment, which we’re already seeing in Rwanda, that you have the steps towards financial empowerment? They don’t always necessarily get it together do they?

Swanee Hunt: I think the women in the political positions will push very, very hard to see that there are loans and banks for women.

Mishal Husain: They’ll look out for each other?

Swanee Hunt: Yeah.

Mishal Husain: Let’s just talk about the other issues that are still outstanding in Rwanda today, because our film has this quite optimistic picture. But this is still a country with a lot of problems. Ethnic tension is still one of them.

Swanee Hunt: The ethnic tension is real. And when you go and you talk to women they say, “Well, you know, we’re really not spending time in each others homes socially, etcetera.” But, you know, that takes time. And I’m very, very wary of outsiders who say, “Oh, those people have hated each other for centuries, and that’s what caused this conflict.”

I live in Boston. Boston is a very divided city ethnically, racially. No one expects us to go to war. I come from Dallas. Dallas is a very divided city, racially. We will never have the percentage of mixed marriages there that have been in Rwanda in terms of Hutu and Tutsi. So it’s too easy, frankly, to say that the genocide happened because of ethnic hatred.

Mishal Husain: But, do women have a special role, do you think, in making sure that that’s part of the past in Rwanda?

Swanee Hunt: I wrote to two women who are the organizers of the Rwandan Women’s Caucus in preparation for this film. And I said, “Tell me, which women that I met with are Hutu and which are Tutsi?” And I read the email this morning and they said, “We don’t think in terms of those kinds of categories. Don’t ask us about those categories. We’re not going to ask the women about those categories. That is a thing of the past.”

Mishal Husain: Is that slightly artificial though? Because the divisions are there. Is there any danger that this process of reconciliation could paper over cracks?

Swanee Hunt: Well, you bet it’s slightly artificial. It’s probably more than slightly artificial. But I’ll tell you, when you have wounds that are as deep as were caused by the genocide, the first thing you do is try to create some way to pull the wound together. And it may be artificial until the skin grows back.

Mishal Husain: You’ve been involved in women and post conflict societies and women in peace building for a long time. Your organization is all about that. What was it that first got you interested in the role that women could play?

Swanee Hunt: When I went to Vienna as ambassador, I came from Colorado where, for a decade, I’d been working, helping put together a women’s foundation — an organization that raised money from mostly women, and funded organizations that were helping women and girls.

I came to Vienna. I looked around for the problems of Austria. There weren’t very many because Austria’s doing fine, thank you. But there was a terrible war going on in Croatia and Bosnia. And I started looking for the women who were leading efforts to stop that war and to keep their neighborhoods, or their town from falling apart. And what I found was a real gap between the policy makers from the U.S. government or the UN, and the women on the ground. The policy makers didn’t even know the women were there.

Mishal Husain: But they existed, and they were working.

Swanee Hunt: There were over 40 women’s associations in Bosnia. And they had come together in a group called “The Union of Women’s Associations.” And when I talked to my friend who was the American ambassador, and said, “Why don’t you have the women coming to official negotiations?”

He said, “Gee, you know, I wish they would organize.” And they were organized. The people who weren’t organized were the U.S. government and the United Nations. We weren’t organized to include the women, to hear the women’s voices.

Mishal Husain: So have women made a difference then in peace and reconciliation in the Balkans? Is that one of the positive examples?

Swanee Hunt: Women have been very active in the Balkans. They’ve been up against tremendous barriers because, under communism, they were about 30 percent of the parliament. And then, when communism imploded, they dropped down to about four or five percent. So they’ve had to really scratch and claw their way into some positions where they can make a difference. But the outside community, the international community, helped create a ruling where one out of three candidates had to be women. And that started seeing some real changes then in the composition.

Mishal Husain: And where else in the world would you say women have made a difference in this whole process of societies trying to build themselves up again and find their feet after a war?

Swanee Hunt: Women have played a key role in Cambodia, fighting the corruption that has come following the conflict. In fact, very frequently, after a conflict, one of the problems is not just the trauma, but the fact that there’s political chaos. And so the organized criminals come in.

As the vice president of the Czech senate said to me, “When the cage opened, then the predators were the first to run out,” and then the people who were still in the cage looked out the door of the cage and saw all of these predators roaming around. So it’s very hard for women, right after a conflict, to put themselves out there with the bullies and the predators who are trying to grab the power. And women very frequently say, “Oh, that’s dirty business. I don’t want to get involved.”

But women are less corruptible. There’s plenty of research to show that they are less inclined to take bribes and they are more trustworthy. And so it’s all the more important to have them in large percentages.

Mishal Husain: Is there any danger though of stereotyping women? And stereotyping them in the same way, in a negative way, that’s been done in the past by portraying them as these more caring, sharing types?

Swanee Hunt: You can always find women who are more belligerent, more bellicose than many of the men. And you can always find a Gandhi who is a great peace leader much more so than most of the women. But as a large group, the stereotypes actually hold up that women tend to be more interested in reconciliation. A Kenyan woman leader said to me, “You know, in a war, men and women want different things. The men care a lot about territory. And they care where the borders are. And they want this whole state. The women,” she said, “they want a safe place.” And she put her fingers like this, “They want a safe place for their children to go to school without being shot, for their daughters to not be raped.” And so they are thinking in the micro. Whereas the men are saying, “I want this macro, and nothing short of it.”

Mishal Husain: And is that attitude what you think makes a difference in the process of building a new country?

Swanee Hunt: As you’re building a country, you have to be thinking about what works at the ground level. And women have their fingers on the pulse of the community. They know what is critical to have in the treaty to stop the war.

They know what kinds of laws can really be implemented. I loved in the film where the woman was talking to the other women about what it was going to be like when they were married. And she was saying, “Now, don’t you think that just because the mother gave your husbands that cow that it’s just his cow.” I mean, that is micro. And it’s that sensibility to the details that women are notorious for.

Mishal Husain: Rwanda is a very small country. Do you think though that there are lessons that can be drawn to other post conflict societies? Or do you think this is a special case?

Swanee Hunt: Every country is different. Afghanistan has different factors than Rwanda, which is different from Colombia. But there are lessons that reach across all of these conflicts.

And the first time I went to Rwanda, I told them stories from Bosnia, where I’d spent hundreds and hundreds of hours. And I told them about the survivors of the massacre of Srebrenica where 8,000 boys and men, all of the boys and men essentially, in this community, were killed within about 36 hours.

And the Rwandan women were on the edges of their seats because that was their experience: this massive massacre. And I said how, when I was talking to one of the organizers of the survivors, who was trying to plan a commemoration a year later of the massacre, I asked her if she would be able to invite the mothers on the other side of the conflict.

She was Muslim, could she invite the Serb mothers who were also missing boys and men who might have been the perpetrators of the massacre? You know, as soon as I asked that question I thought, oh, I shouldn’t. That was so insensitive. But, she said to me, “You know Ambassador Hunt, we are all mothers.” And I looked in the eyes of these Rwandan women and I said that. And they had tears streaming down their faces.
Photo of Swanee Hunt

Mishal Husain: And that’s something unique about women?

Swanee Hunt: I think that women often can connect at a heart to heart level.

Mishal Husain: What about other reconstruction efforts that the U.S. is involved in today? Iraq and Afghanistan for instance?

Swanee Hunt: We’re doing a medium to poor job of supporting women’s voices in those countries. We’re starting some schools for girls. We are having some women’s centers established in Afghanistan. But, generally speaking, we’re talking about very small percentages of our overall funding.

Mishal Husain: So what would you like to see then in terms of helping women emerge in those countries?

Swanee Hunt: I would like to see a massive exchange program so that we are bringing women leaders to this country for them to have experiences that will embolden them, that will teach them some necessary skills. I would like to see many times more dollars going into the education for girls. The World Bank has some wonderful statistics in terms of the importance of educating girls as a way of lifting whole societies out of poverty.

Mishal Husain: Is there a danger at all though that it’ll be seen as imposing Western values on these countries, which is already controversial?

Swanee Hunt: You know, the notion of imposing Western values is a fair one because it’s certainly not something that we want to be doing. But it’s not difficult to find homegrown efforts to support. There are plenty of women leaders in Iraq, in Afghanistan, who are desperately trying to scrape together the dollars to lead activities that are very much part of their own culture.

Mishal Husain: Do they have the support of their men folk though? Because one of the striking things in the film about Rwanda is how supportive the men seem to be.

Swanee Hunt: Right. Women in Afghanistan have the greatest challenges in terms of the roles of men and women and asserting themselves there. But in Iraq, it’s a very different story. I was in Baghdad recently and met with a group of ten Iraqi women.

They were all dressed in complete black, except for their faces showing. We were sitting on the floor drinking tea. And I asked them what percentage of the new parliament, the new assembly, they thought should be women.

And one of them said, “Well, 50 percent, of course.” And I sort of smiled thinking, well, that’s a little overly enthusiastic. So then I asked some of the other women. And they said, “Well why not? Why shouldn’t it be 50 percent?”

And I said, “Well, what would your husbands say?” And the woman said, “Well, my husband is very proud of me, that I’m learning how to speak out. And he would be very approving.” Now, then I asked how many of them would be willing to run for office themselves. And then they pulled back.

And they started talking among themselves. And finally one put her hand up. And a second one did, and a third. And another woman spoke up and said, “And the rest of us are going to work on their campaigns.”

Mishal Husain: But how do you encourage that process to happen then, in terms of U.S. policy, for instance?

Swanee Hunt: The women I was talking about just now, they had been meeting together for about two months under a program called “Women for Women International,” with a trainer who was talking to them about their rights, who was, just like I had done with the women in Rwanda — Oprah Winfrey style — putting a microphone in front of their faces and saying, “Tell me who you are? What is your message?” What we find is that with that kind of encouragement, which can be U.S.-funded in terms of programming, the women come right up to the leadership positions.

Mishal Husain: Is it easier to do it in some societies, or some countries, than others? Rwanda, for instance, is quite a small country.

Swanee Hunt: You know, I haven’t seen that the size of the country is the real factor in making a difference.

Mishal Husain: Or is that a certain kind of society, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan, are both Muslim societies? Is that the kind of thing that prevents additional obstacles?

Swanee Hunt: I don’t think that Islamic countries have an additional obstacle. I’m asked that question a lot. People talk about, “Well, doesn’t the Koran have all of these very difficult passages that keep women subjugated?” And, you know, I’m actually a biblical scholar; my doctorate’s in theology.

I can quote you lots of chapters in verse from the bible that are terrible for women. But you can use the bible to either liberate or subjugate women. And it’s the same with the Koran.

Mishal Husain: Do you think we should be patient in terms of the development of women in post conflict societies like Iraq? Or is this something that has to be addressed right at the beginning of an effort to build a new country?

Swanee Hunt: One of the greatest mistakes the international community can make is to say, “Well, we will get other matters figured out and stabilized, and then we’ll think about the women’s rights, because that’s really a grade-B kind of concern.”

Photo of Swanee Hunt

I met with the Pentagon in May after “Shock and Awe” in Iraq. And I said, “You have got to bring the women in and have their voices heard.” And they said, “You know, Madam Ambassador, we just need to get the place secure, and then we’ll think about the women.” And I said, “You’re not gonna get the place secure.” Because the women know what’s going on in the neighborhoods. They have their fingers on the pulse. They know who has the guns. They know where the unrest is. You have got to bring them in from the very beginning.

If you don’t build in the women’s role at the very beginning, then all kinds of laws and constitutions get created that exclude women.

Mishal Husain: So when you look at the Untied States today to date, is it doing enough to push for women’s emergence in countries which are emerging from conflicts?

Swanee Hunt: Women in Congress have made sure that women’s voices are being heard more and more, but we are still a very, very far cry. You know, after September 11, if you looked at the talking heads on the U.S. programs, even though the big cry was about the Taliban and the women behind the burkas, et cetera, the percentage of women as experts was a tiny percent. And that was when the whole world was talking about women in Afghanistan.

Mishal Husain: Why would you say that people here in the United States should care about what happens in Rwanda, this small, faraway country?

Swanee Hunt: The world is so connected. And Africa may seem far away. But when you look at the problems that loom there and the way that, for example, terrorism can be spawned from hopelessness, and hopelessness can come from a lack of economic development, we are much, much more connected than you might think.

And Rwanda gives us a chance to get it right, because Rwanda’s tiny. And if we can support these women, they become a model then that could be replicated around the world.

Mishal Husain: Do we have a stake then in Rwanda’s success?

Swanee Hunt: The United States is the lone superpower of the world. We have a stake in Rwanda’s success because we have a stake in the world’s stability.

And we have got to understand the need for a paradigm shift. This is not about “might makes right.” This is about a democratic movement that pulls out the voices of all of the people so that they come up with a fair and healthy and stable and sustainable society. And if we can learn those lessons in a place like Rwanda, then we can apply them around the world.

Mishal Husain: Do you have any fears at all about whether this change in Rwanda is sustainable? Women have gone so far, but in a relatively short period of time.

Swanee Hunt: I can imagine a nightmare scenario that would lead the country back into war. But overall, I would say that the women are achieving a momentum that is going to carry them forward and carry their country forward. That’s my grandest hope. It’s really up to us in the United States, in other wealthy, privileged countries, to be their sisters and their brothers.

Mishal Husain: And that’s what’ll make a difference? That’ll give them the support to take this further?

Swanee Hunt: We can make a huge difference to the women of Rwanda.

Mishal Husain: Ambassador Hunt, thanks for talking to us on WIDE ANGLE.

Swanee Hunt: It’s a pleasure.

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