Graphic: Timothy Alexander – In Rwanda, where women’s rights have been fore-fronted, where across all planes of society there is a distinctive patterning of gender parity, it is a little unsettling to see how a severe jail term can be considered for indecent dress, the writer says.
By Kim Heller
It was lights, cameras and scorn for Liliane Mugabekazi, a twenty-something Rwandan woman arrested for public indecency earlier this month in Rwanda. This after she attended a music concert wearing clothes that according to prosecutors showed “her private parts”.
“Clothes” according to prosecutors “that we call shameful”. It was on these “serious grounds” that prosecutors asked the court to remand Mugabekazi for 30 days. Although released on bail, she could face up to two years in jail for this “crime”.
Images of Liliane Mugabekazi, in a skimpy dress, at the concert of French-Cameroonian musician TayC have been splashed across social media. Her arrest has ruffled the feathers of many a human right activists, who have objected sharply to the policing of women’s bodies. But Rwandan authorities stood firm, chiding such semi-naked public parades as objectionable and immoral. The minister of local government, Mr Jean-Marie Vianney Gatabazi, was quoted as saying, “There are certain things that give you value in the community. You can achieve whatever you want to achieve or do whatever you want to do with decency. You don’t have to be naked to do that.”
By all accounts Rwanda is the super model for and of gender participation and advancement. With a constitution deliberately tailored and fashioned to boost women and with a 64 percent female representation in Parliament, the highest in the world, this little East African nation has earned a good reputation for ramping up gender issues. A strong layering of gender equity has seen gender parity in both Rwanda’s cabinet and Supreme Court.
Today, Rwanda bears no resemblance to the butcher house of genocide that it was in 1994, when in a 100-day bloodbath, close to a million people (10 percent of the population) were butchered and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women raped by the Hutu militia. It is said that close to 20,000 children were born of these mass rapes.
In her recent book Rwandan Women Rising, Swanee Hunt writes, “Most women hadn’t been killed, they had been raped. They had seen the devastation. They had seen their husbands hacked to death right in front of their eyes. And so afterwards, they had to bury the bodies.”
Hunt’s book is a testament to how Rwandan women rose to rebuild a blood-stained country. Former Chinese Communist Party chairperson Mao Zedong’s famous quote “Women hold up half the sky” is apt. In Rwanda’s case it is closer to 70 percent, the tally of women in the country’s post-genocide population. And it was on the back of women that Rwanda began to heal, as mothers tended to orphans, broken families, and soothed the unspeakable wounds of a decimated nation. It was the women of Rwanda who, away from the flash of cameras fixated on Rwanda’s ravage and the carnage, slowly brought back a ray of sunshine in a nation that had witnessed its darkest days.
From the start, the new president of Rwanda Paul Kagame fore-fronted women and women equality as part of his overall recovery and developmental strategy. In an address to thousands of Rwandan women in 2013, Kagame said, “Gender equality in every sector is not a favour, it is your right. It is the way it should be. The right to equality is not something that can be given or taken. It begins with each of you believing in your equal ability to achieve.”
And the president has honoured his word. Real, rather than cosmetic measures, are in place, in Rwanda today. The 2020 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Rwanda among the top 10 countries who were successfully dealing with gender disparity. Better access to health services for women has seen female mortality rates fall. Kagame has taken a strong stance on women abuse, saying, “Men who abuse their wives should be brought to justice in the strictest form. Why would anyone tolerate violence against women? It should never be tolerated.” Gender-based violence has declined markedly in Rwanda.
Education, especially tertiary education, is no longer the province of men. The naked eye can clearly see that across all planes of society in Rwanda, there is a distinctive patterning of gender parity. In the Rwanda of today, one of Africa’s most thriving economies, women occupy pride of place. So it is a little unsettling to see how in the same Rwanda of today, such a severe jail term can be considered for indecent dress. Is it a signal that all is not as it appears in Rwanda?
Or it is yet an expression of Western orientated human rights groups trying to dictate what constitutes dignity and decency. Michele Wrong, author of a recent book on Rwanda called Do Not Disturb, told the BBC, “It (Rwanda) does look like the Switzerland of Africa, but it is an extremely repressive and frightening country.”
Human rights groups have been vocal on the Liliane Mugabekazi matter. But Kagame says Rwanda has little to learn from advocacy groups “who think they own the copyright on what constitutes human rights under all conditions in every corner of the world”.
Kagame has said, “Freedom is the opportunity that gives you hope that you will stand tall. This Rwanda is ours; it is our house. It is not a house someone has lent to us. It is ours to work on and transform.”
For now, perhaps advocacy groups must concentrate on getting their own houses in order. After all, many were absent and silent when Rwanda was facing its darkest hour.
Heller is Political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’