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July 22nd, 2008
Ladies First
Handbook: Rwanda's Challenges

Like many African nations, Rwanda is a former colony struggling to become an economically and politically stable nation. Its recent past is marred by the 1994 genocide, and while its people work hard at rebuilding their lives and their futures, the road ahead is far from easy. What led to the horror of 1994? What has its short and long term impact been on the nation’s people?

Crosses at a genocide cemetery.

White crosses fill the space in the Nyanza Genocide Cemetery on the outskirts of Kigali. It is the burial site of 3,500 victims of the genocide.
Credit: Colette Kunkel

PART I – The Genocide

Sowing the Seeds of Hate

In April 1994, Rwanda’s then-powerful Hutu carried out a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi people. The aim was to stop invading Rwandan Tutsi revolutionaries and to remove their local support by liquidating their power base. The Hutu-led Mouvement Révolutionnaire Nationale pour le Développement (MRND — National Revolutionary Movement for Development) and its military carried out an attempt at genocide. In response, Tutsi revolutionaries took control of the country in July, stemming the violence. But in terms of genocide, most observers would agree that the Hutus were frighteningly successful — killing more than 800,000 people in a short three-month period.

The history of Rwanda is a complex one, steeped in colonial power shifting and tribal conflict. Germany, Belgium, and, more recently, France helped to widen tribal resentments between Hutus and Tutsis in order to keep an upper hand on the region. In the early days of colonization, German and then Belgian authorities allowed Tutsi kingships to reign over much of the region. But when those kings started to demand independence from Belgium in the late 1950s, the colonists shifted allegiance and backed the previously sublimated Hutus. Tutsi loyalists attempted to stop this shift by killing key Hutu leaders. The payback was swift and brutal, launching the first of several pogroms against Tutsi people. In the years that followed, waves of Tutsi refugees left the country. By 1990 there were approximately 600,000 Rwandans living in exile.

The Seeds of Conflict

The seeds of ethnic and political conflict that would culminate in the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda were sown during the first half of the 20th century. After Germany was defeated in World War I, Belgium inherited the territory of “Ruanda-Urundi” as part of the spoils of war. The Belgian colonists divided Rwandan society along ethnic lines, favoring the cattle-owning Tutsi tribesman over the largely agricultural Hutu majority, and soon began to exercise their will through the Tutsi monarchy. Tutsis were given privileged access to colonial schools and placed in better jobs than their neighbors, and in 1935 the colonial administration issued identity cards to distinguish members of the two groups.

The inequities built into Rwandan society created an atmosphere of resentment between the Tutsis and Hutus that soon began to boil over. After World War II, the Tutsi mwami, or king, and his supporters began to press for independence from Belgian rule. In retaliation, during the late 1950s the colonial powers began backing fledgling Hutu political movements that sought to end Tutsi domination and demanded a voice in the country’s affairs proportionate to their numbers. The struggle between the two groups came to a head in 1959 when PARMEHUTU, the Hutu emancipation party, rejected the succession of King Kigeri V. The resulting conflict saw the first large-scale instances of organized political violence between the two ethnic groups in which approximately 20,000 Tutsis were killed and many more forced to flee to the neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania. The stage had also been set for further violence.

A spate of rapid changes reshaped Rwanda’s government over the next three years. Hutu political parties were victorious in the hastily organized elections carried out by the Belgian administration during 1960 and, in 1961, 80 percent of the electorate voted to abolish the monarchy and to establish a republic. A year later in 1962, Rwanda was formally granted independence from Belgian rule and Gregoire Kayibanda, leader of the PARMEHUTU party, became Rwanda’s first elected president.

In 1973, Kayibanda was toppled in a coup d’Ètat orchestrated by his chief of staff Juvénal Habyarimana. Habyarimana’s government soon began to carry out intimidating attacks on both Tutsis and supporters of the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR) party, formerly known as PARMEHUTU. Habyarimana instituted a one-party state in 1975 and forced all Rwandans to become members of his new National Revolutionary Movement for Development party (MRND).

After almost thirty years of Hutu-based governments, and sporadic massacres against Tutsis, a revolutionary force of Rwandan Tutsis backed by Uganda attempted to resettle the balance of power. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) marched into the country in 1990. The RPF made inroads into Rwanda’s northern Byumba province and eventually forced a stalemate with government forces in that area. But they were unable to take the capitol city of Kigali thanks in part to French military aid to the Hutu-based government of Juvénal Habyarimana and the MRND. Sparked by French insistence for reform and internal political pressures, President Habyarimana allowed the formation of a multiparty government in 1992 that immediately began negotiations with the RPF.

Despite ongoing negotiations, violent clashes between the RPF and the Rwandan government continued until both sides signed the Arusha Peace Agreement in August 1993. The Arusha pact made provisions for power-sharing within the Rwandan government and the repatriation of Rwandan refugees. However, after signing the agreement, Habyarimana’s government stalled the implementation of the Arusha reforms and the principles put forth in the document were never fully realized under his regime.

Some believe that, despite the posturing toward peace, Hutu leaders were actually planning to stay in power by killing off the Tutsi insurgents, their supporters in the country, and Hutus sympathetic to the Tutsis. The killings began in early April 1994.

First, the MRND president Juvénal Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6. Then, within hours, raids began against Tutsi people. In the three months of slaughter that ensued, killings were carried out by the military, and by youth organizations called the “Interahamwe” (meaning those who work together). All were whipped into a frenzy by long standing hostility, rumor, and rage-radio. Broadcast by Radio Rwanda and Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM), listeners were constantly reminded to be vigilant about Tutsi insurgents who should be cut down before they could threaten the strength of the nation. In all, 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu people died, many by machete slashing. Two million more ran from the country to live in hellish refugee camps across the borders of eastern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Tanzania, and Burundi. More than 100,000 women were gang-raped — many by HIV positive men.

RPF forces took the capital in July and the blades of slaughter were put down.

These are the barest of facts. There have been many writings on Rwanda’s genocide. In its wake, international governmental and non-governmental organizations have pointed fingers at one another and tried to lay blame upon each other. Some were given warnings and did nothing, while many others turned a blind eye once the killing began. Hindsight does little to mend the damage, and the international press coverage of the time does little to convey the true horror of the event.

Photos of genocide victims.

Photos of genocide victims are strung together during a memorial ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan holocaust.
Credit: Colette Kunkel

Eyewitness Accounts

It is known that lists of Tutsi people and moderate Hutus were distributed to government soldiers who systematically executed them, sometimes in their homes and sometimes in killing fields at the edge of town.

A witness in Kigali described some of the early killings: “People coming from the market said that soldiers had shot a man named Venuste and then had gone to his home and had killed everyone there. The soldiers then proceeded down the line, killing as they went. I could hear the sound of gunfire, moving in a line around my house.” [1]

In smaller villages, militia groups would round up people who were Tutsi, suspected Tutsis, and even moderate Hutus, driving them out to killing fields. An old woman from Ngoma describes a roundup: “I hid and saw it from the window, from behind the curtain, cowering there in the corner. I saw them driving the groups of people ahead of them, shouting and shoving them with sticks and wooden clubs. Behind them came the soldiers with their guns, but they did not shoot. I saw a pregnant woman get hit in the stomach and fall back. I heard her cries. They took them down to the valley and killed them with nail-studded clubs, with hoes and machetes. I heard no shots, only the cries of horror and pain from the valley.” [1]

In some areas, entire villages of people were killed. They were rounded up, tied down — some were slashed to death, others clubbed, or shot. Men, women, and young children died. Bodies were left to rot in piles, along roadways, in schools, and in homes.

Trials to prosecute those participating in the genocide continue today. Some 120,000 people have been arrested and jailed for these crimes. Approximately 60,000 still await trial. Leaders of the genocide are being handled by special courts created by the United Nation’s Security Council. In the wake of this bloodbath, several countries have adopted resolutions that will spur a faster response of humanitarian aid to countries that may be in the throes of similar conflict. For its part, Rwanda outlawed the MRND party almost immediately following the end of the genocide. On May 26, 2003, it adopted a new constitution that eliminated ethnic references. Many survivors participate in reconciliation programs and the country seems to be in recovery.

[1] Quotes were taken from the text of “Leave None to Tell the Story,” a detailed account of the genocide published by Human Rights Watch.

PART II – AIDS and Orphans

Offspring of War

A young orphan girl sits with her HIV positive sister in her lap.

Pascazi Mukamana (right) of Ntenyo in southwestern Rwanda is the head of the household for herself and her three younger siblings now that their mother has died of AIDS. Young Solange (left) displays symptoms of HIV. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/AP

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda left hundreds of thousands dead. It also left tens of thousands orphaned, psychologically and physically scarred, and potentially ill. Thousands of children witnessed the murder of one or both parents. Many were also beaten and some raped. During the nightmare months of 1994, hundreds of thousands of women were also systematically raped by men known to be infected with HIV. Ten years after the genocide, Rwanda is one of the world’s leaders in child-run households, and one of the leaders in the rate of AIDS infection. [1] Both are personal and public tragedies for Rwandans.

Today there are more than 600,000 orphans in Rwanda. Anywhere from 90,000 to 300,000 lost their parents as a result of the genocide, either during the killing spree, or in its immediate aftermath due to displacement or imprisonment. More than 200,000 have lost parents due to AIDS. Many of the orphans are street children Rwandans call “mayibobos.” Others live with older siblings in make-shift homes, some are in the care of orphanages, and a lucky few have homes with relatives and neighbors.

The number of orphans is hard to calculate in a country where the population growth rate was once one of the highest in the world. It is not uncommon for Rwandan families to traditionally have seven or more children. But lack of formal birth-records coupled with a shattered infrastructure have meant that calculating the number of orphans is nearly impossible. Therefore, the numbers on orphans vary, according to agency and criteria. Nonetheless, most official reports put the number as upward of 90,000. Just as striking are the numbers of child-headed households in Rwanda, with an estimated 101,000 children living in some 42,000 households. Often headed by a teenage girl, these are families of siblings who have returned to their family’s village or, in some cases, the remains of their family home. Without schooling or job prospects, many of these children live off whatever they grow on small plots of land or whatever they can scrounge from neighbors.

Aid workers agree that the number of orphans in Rwanda is a problem both short term and long term. In the short term, child-headed households are more at risk of being taken advantage of both as victims of sexual abuse and/or abusive work conditions. According to UNICEF, more than 30 percent of Rwandans aged 5 to 14 years old were part of a child-labor force. These children are also very poorly educated in a country where most schooling is fee based. Orphans and children living in child-headed households are often malnourished. As a whole, 41 percent of Rwandan children have growth retardation relating to malnutrition. With tenuous social ties, Rwandan orphans are also at risk of becoming poorly socialized and easy victims of propaganda. In the longer term, all these circumstances may have a negative impact on the Rwandan population, as these children grow up lacking the tools to become positive, contributing members of society.

Nonetheless, there are many efforts to help Rwanda’s orphans. Church groups and international organizations run programs to help educate and feed orphans. UNICEF has several multi-point programs in effect that are aimed at education and basic subsistence support, such as providing chickens, goats, vegetable seeds, fertilizer, hoes, blankets, and household utensils to child-headed households. Other programs are offering vocational training and basic education, while efforts are also underway to create special classes for orphans where basic requirements like uniforms are lifted. The communities themselves are pitching in. Many child-led households have informal foster parents — neighbors willing to help the children out with their basic needs.

Rwandan village scene.

According to the World Health Organization, the 2001 rate of HIV infection in Rwanda is almost nine percent. UNAIDS surveyors also report that the number of rural infections is on the rise. Photo: Colette Kunkel

Impact of AIDS

Sadly for Rwanda, the AIDS crisis also looms on the horizon. The U.N. estimates that anywhere between one quarter to half a million women were raped during the 1994 genocide. No one is sure how many of those currently infected with HIV were the result of the planned rape campaign, but certainly a large percentage can be blamed on it. According to the World Health Organization, the 2001 rate of infection is almost 9 percent for persons aged 14 to 49, — anywhere from 1 in 11 to 1 in 9 Rwandans carries the HIV virus. More troubling to surveyors has been the recent shift from largely urban carriers to rural populations, which means that the disease is taking hold across a potentially broader spectrum of the society.

As recently as 2003, only 1 percent of the infected population in Africa received anti-viral treatment for HIV and AIDS. There is a lack of basic infrastructure to deal with the complex drug treatment and the cost of the three-drug “cocktail” is prohibitive. Nonetheless, help is on the way in the form of matching grants and international campaigns such as the International Partnership Against AIDS in Africa which hopes to invest some 30 million dollars for prevention, education, and treatment. Other non-governmental organizations are also working in partnership with the Rwandan government to implement testing and treatment programs. Current goals of these programs are to provide antiretroviral treatment for thousands of Rwandans starting in 2004. At present, Rwanda has commitments from donors to treat a total of 45,000 patients with antiretrovirals, half of its estimated need. USAID has also implemented a treatment program that will fund life-span treatment with the combination antiretroviral treatment for as many as 250 Rwandans.

It seems hard to imagine a bright future for Rwandan orphans and those infected with HIV. But the Rwandans are resilient. There has been an impressive effort by Rwandan health officials to rollout HIV testing and treatment programs. Reconciliation programs have brought together peaceful understanding for widows and orphans of the genocide. Private and public cooperatives help poor Rwandans pool their resources and energy to maximize their work output both as subsistence farmers and cottage industry workers. The Rwandan economy is bouncing back and with it, the future may improve for those traumatized by the genocide and its aftermath.

[1] According to UNAIDS 2003 estimates of infection, Rwanda ranks in the top 20 countries.


A group of women are seated weaving baskets from reeds.

Women weave traditional Rwandan baskets as part of a reconciliation program. Photo: Colette Kunkel

Diversifying the Economy

Hope for the people of Rwanda in the coming decades rests not only on the nation’s progress toward political reconciliation and social reconstruction, but also on its potential for economic growth. Even before the 1994 genocide, the small, relatively isolated farming economy of Rwanda faced a host of challenges. Now, in the midst of recovery to pre-war levels, Rwanda’s leadership looks to a future that will build upon the past while transforming the national economy.

Nestled in the highlands of Central Africa, Rwanda is an exceptionally poor, landlocked country with an almost entirely agrarian economy. It is one of the most densely populated and least urbanized countries on the African continent, with nine out of ten Rwandans working on small farms, mostly for their own subsistence. Despite a relative abundance of fertile land and rainfall, Rwanda’s farm economy struggles, even by the standards of the sub-Saharan region. The country’s food production has generally not kept pace with population growth in recent decades. By the early 1980s, its total agricultural output was in steady decline.

Judging by today’s international income benchmarks, the result is dire poverty for the average Rwandan. Of the country’s roughly eight million people, more than four fifths survive on incomes lower than $2 per day, with one third of Rwandans getting by on less than $1 per day. This has left the country unusually reliant on food aid, loans, and other forms of foreign assistance.

While agricultural reforms and improved farming methods may help reduce poverty in coming years, Rwanda’s leadership continues to seek growth in sectors beyond this subsistence economy. Some Rwandan entrepreneurs are exploring ways to diversify into profitable agricultural exports like fruit juice processing and flower production1. But most are sticking to Rwanda’s traditional exports: coffee and tea, which in most years bring in 80 percent or more of the country’s foreign exchange. These are, however, particularly subject to a volatile and competitive global commodity market. Severe drops in tea prices — which now hover around two cents per serving for consumers — prompted a gathering in Sri Lanka last fall where attendees, including a Rwandan delegation, agreed cartel-style to gradually cut global tea production until prices rise.

Similarly brutal price swings in coffee markets have meant that greater production by Rwandan farmers has led only to declining incomes. One response has been the formation of farming cooperatives. These often target specialty markets, bringing Rwanda’s fine Arabica beans to upscale stores and restaurants in Europe or the United States — frequently through Fair Trade programs. Some involve partnerships with aid agencies and non-governmental agencies to establish more profitable coffee varieties that require greater knowledge and more demanding production. These and other programs have led to the creation of banking cooperatives and other institutions necessary for the country’s future economic growth.

Woman tends fields with young son.

A woman and her son work in the fields. 90 percent of the Rwandan economy is agrarian based. Photo: Colette Kunkel

Women Help Grow the Economy

In many cases, the key beneficiaries of these ventures are women who, since the genocide, head as many as 40 percent of farms and households. Rwandan society has responded to this economic and social imperative by establishing women’s councils, changing inheritance and land ownership laws, expanding access to education for girls, and enacting policies to encourage women’s entrepreneurship.

But in the long run, Rwanda’s economy cannot truly thrive on farming alone. Future growth will require development of sectors like industry and tourism, as well as privatization and reform of state-dominated businesses. At present, Rwanda’s industrial economy consists primarily of small-scale processors of agricultural export products. Mining of gold, tin, tungsten, and coltan2 — an ore essential for the manufacture of small electronics — brings some export profits, but employs only one percent of the country’s workforce.

Tourism is believed to hold promise for the country since Rwanda’s national parks are some of the few places in the world where one can still see mountain gorillas, of which fewer than 1,000 remain in their native habitat. Tourism is gradually recovering, and is currently around half of its pre-war level. And development plans in this sector are ambitious: Promoters seek additional funding for parks, hotels, and performance venues. They aim to combine ecotourism with activities showcasing Rwanda’s centuries-old cultures in order to draw coveted “low-volume, high value” tourists.

Much of Rwandan business has traditionally been state-owned and dominated by a small elite. Thus, market reform and privatization present not only difficult economic questions, but also thorny political ones. But with international assistance and guidance, market reform of Rwanda’s state-dominated enterprises has been substantial, though incomplete. Many of the smaller state-run businesses –such as hotels, coffee and tea plantations, and small processors of agricultural products have been privatized and are now under more diverse leadership. Rwanda’s largest public sector businesses, such as the utility Electrogaz and the phone company Rwandatel, have proceeded more slowly, in stages and have tended to involve the sale of businesses by local elites to foreign investors.

Overall, these initiatives and reform measures are seen as encouraging. However, they are small in comparison to the dominant trend of the past ten years: rapid recovery of the country’s agricultural economy from the ravages of war. In the years immediately after the war, hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid flowed in annually and the country revived itself from the shock of genocide, dislocation of the population and destruction of the agricultural base. In this period, Rwanda’s growth rate was unusually high, starting at over 30 percent in 1995, and settling to around 9 to 10 percent in 2002. But by 2003, this “catch-up” phase appeared to have ended, as rising global fuel costs and declining tea and coffee prices brought Rwanda’s growth rate below 4 percent for the first time in a decade. The outlook for 2004 is predicted to be favorable, with growth a percentage point or two higher than last year.

So, after a decade of rebound, most expect that Rwanda has returned to normalcy, albeit of the sort known to the world’s poorest nations. In coming years, Rwanda is likely to share the goals of many of its sub-Saharan African neighbors: managing and pursuing forgiveness of the country’s huge debt burden; maintaining international aid while seeking foreign investment; and, perhaps most of all, establishing a more diverse economy that will allow its people to save, to build, and to create a better life.

In Rwanda and neighboring countries, Africans look forward to greater integration, both regionally and globally, anticipating the benefits trade and foreign investment may bring. In this paradigm, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and others in the government promote the country’s reputation for minimal corruption, macroeconomic stability, and increasing security. Rwanda’s central location, combined with the right industry, technology, communications, and services will, they say, bring a brighter future for their country, and benefits to investors abroad. One official offers a vision of Rwanda as a “mini Dubai” — an economic processing zone for Central Africa with strong telecom, banking, and finance sectors. Some have responded to this call: the Belgians and Chinese with loans; the United States with investments in tea processing.

Still, there are constant reminders of the obstacles Rwanda faces. The country has fallen short of a variety of IMF targets for reform, and its economy is still heavily reliant on aid. Observers fear that Rwanda’s growing population and limited arable land are a ticking time bomb for a society so dependent on agriculture.

Rwanda has shown something of its economic potential in the daily heroism of recovery over the last ten years, and still faces challenges that would be great for any nation. But perhaps the memory of its recent history will give the country and the international community the strength and resolve to find solutions.

Pyrethrum: One of Rwanda’s most remarkable export products is pyrethrum, a naturally-occurring, human-safe insecticide produced by a daisy-like flower of the chrysanthemum family. For decades, these flowers have been cultivated and processed throughout East Africa, Oceania, and elsewhere to produce pyrethrum extract. Pyrethrum is promoted as an organic alternative to synthetic pesticides since it lacks their adverse health and environmental impacts, and it degrades quickly in the environment. It is a key ingredient in some insecticides and repellents for agricultural and personal use. It has also been recommended by health and environmental activists as a natural, local substitute for DDT in the fight against malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

Coltan: The tech boom of the 1990s brought this rare ore to the world’s attention when the tantalum it contains was in high demand for the production of laptops, mobile phones, and other portable electronics. The ore is plentiful in very few places — one of them being the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a civil war-torn nation neighboring Rwanda. As the ore skyrocketed in value, open-pit mining in Congo’s national parks, as well as hunting of the parks’ gorillas and elephants by miners, drew criticism from environmental groups. A controversial U.N. Security Council report alleged that income from coltan smuggling was prolonging war in Congo and funding strife in neighboring countries. The Rwandan army is believed to have made $250 million U.S. in less than two years through the smuggling and sale of coltan. In response to these controversies, some leading electronics firms have banned all use of Central African coltan and switched to Australian sources

A woman bends down to place her ballot in a collection box near Kigali.A woman casts her vote at a polling place near Kigali during the 2003 elections. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/AP

PART IV – The Political Outlook

Reconstruction and Transformation

In the decade since the genocide, Rwanda has been rebuilding its society, its economy, and its political system. The first steps toward reorganization and healing were made in the months immediately after RPF forces took over Kigali. A transitional government called “The Broad Based Government of National Unity” was organized based upon the principles laid out in the nation’s 1991 constitution and the Arusha accords. Habyarimana’s MRND party was banned. Over the next few years the new regime sought to stabilize the government and to repatriate displaced Rwandans — a policy that opened the door for more than a million refugees to flood back into the country in 1996. The Rwandan government also entered into a protracted conflict in Zaire involving ex-FAR and Interahamwe militias. Though the two nations would later sign a peace accord in July 2002, tensions between Rwandan and Congolese forces have remained high along their shared border areas.

In the spring of 2000, Vice President Paul Kagame was named as the first Tutsi president of Rwanda by the RPF-dominated transitional government. Kagame, as chairman of the RPF, was already largely regarded as the real source of power within the Rwandan government. In June of 2002, he initiated village-based “gacaca” (meaning “on the grass”) trials which were meant to reduce the immense backlog of legal cases pending from the 1994 genocide. Though more than 100,000 people still awaited trial at the time, the gacaca hearings got off to a slow start and the courts have remained trapped in gridlock. Furthermore, some criticized the gacaca system for ignoring atrocities committed by RPF forces during the conflict.

Over the course of 2003, the Rwandan government moved to close its transitional phase begun in 1994 and to establish a solid political foundation for the future of the country. On May 26, 93 percent of the electorate approved a new constitution, Rwanda’s fifth since the end of the monarchy. The newly ratified constitution was drafted by a special commission after nearly two years of discussion with the citizens of Rwanda and other consultants. The new document enshrined many human rights such as equality for men and women, removed all references to ethnicity, and contained specific measures meant to prevent genocide. It also included a host of different democratic structures including a bi-cameral parliament, a system of checks and balances between different legislative bodies, power-sharing measures such as a requirement that the president and prime minister must be from different parties, the creation of an ombudsman, and party pluralism. However, while many believed that Rwanda’s new constitution was a positive step toward democracy, some in the international community were critical of the document’s limits on political activity and alleged that it primarily served to reinforce the ruling RPF regime’s power.

Crowds at an election rally for Paul Kagame.

Crowds attend a rally in August 2003 to support Rwandan President Paul Kagame of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The sign reads: “Vote Kagame Paul who is leading Rwanda to a better place.” Photo: Karel Prinsloo/AP

Rwanda’s new constitution also made provisions for presidential and parliamentary elections. On August 25, 2003, Rwanda’s first multi-party elections since the early 1960s saw Paul Kagame elected to his first full seven-year term as president by an overwhelming 95 percent of voters. His nearest competitor, former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, received a scant 3.6 percent of the vote. But some experts and human rights groups insisted that the elections had been unfair. Twagiramungu’s party, the MDR, had been banned months before the election for supposedly espousing a platform based on “divisionism” and, just before the voting was to take place, the Netherlands rescinded $280,000 USD in funding after several members of opposition groups “disappeared.” Furthermore, Rwanda’s new constitution effectively forbade grassroots political organizing — a prohibition that critics noted didn’t apply to the RPF.

Legislative elections were held from September 29 to October 2, 2003. Though it came as no surprise that RPF candidates easily carried the day, women had also made significant inroads into Rwanda’s government. Immediately after the genocide, some sources estimated Rwanda’s population to be as high as 70 percent female. That figure was lowered later to 57 percent for the population aged 20 to 45 (after the return of some 600,000 to 800,000 refugees). Still, many women had been left as the sole head of their households. Recognizing that these women would be a key part of the reconstruction effort, the transitional Government of National Unity advanced policies of equality for men and women. A 1999 law extended the right to inherit land to women, and the 2003 constitution mandated that 30 percent of all decision-making posts in Rwanda’s national government were to be filled by women. However, in addition to the twenty four seats reserved for women in the new parliament’s lower house, women candidates won an additional 15 seats in the 2003 elections. With 49 percent of its Chamber of Deputies seats held by women, Rwanda surpassed Sweden as the country with the highest percentage of women in a house of parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Many have applauded Rwanda’s government for maintaining stability and for its efforts to rebuild its homeland — both politically and economically — after it was shattered by the genocide. Since taking the helm of the nation in 1994, RPF leadership has gone to great lengths to downplay ethnicity and promote a sense of national unity and identity among its citizens. But the current regime has also been criticized for its autocratic tendencies, its lack of freedom of the press and expression, and for its intolerance of challenges to its authority. In June 2004, human rights groups once again found fault with Rwanda’s government after former president Pasteur Bizimungu was handed a 15 year sentence after a scant 12-day trial in a Rwandan court. Though the court charged Bizimungu with three separate crimes, the underlying reason for his indictment were his attempts to launch a political party in opposition to the RPF after his resignation in 2000. Some international observers have noted that such incidents undermine the development of Rwanda’s young democracy.

Rwanda will face many difficult challenges in the near future, including encouraging further democratization of its government; extending more freedoms to its citizens; conducting judicial hearings for the more than 80,000 individuals that still await trial for genocide crimes; countering any insurgency among ex-military or Interahamwe forces who agitate along the nation’s border with the Congo; and finally, finding ways to encourage economic growth and fight poverty. Regardless of its success in dealing with any of these formidable tasks, the future of Rwanda will perhaps hinge most acutely on the ability of its Tutsi and Hutu populations to live peacefully together once again.

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