Passport Series: Rwanda overcomes a brutal history & paves the way for gender equality

No larger than the state of Maryland, Rwanda is a small landlocked nation in the heart of Africa. Full of lakes and very mountainous, it is a beautiful country with just over 12 million inhabitants.

Today, some consider it Africa’s “biggest success story,” but just 19 short years ago the nation was haunted by one of the most horrific genocides in history.


Unfortunately, when one thinks of Rwanda perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is its tragic history of genocide. Prompted by decades of competition between the two major ethnic groups in Rwanda -- the Tutsi and the Hutu -- it was the assassination of a Hutu-led government leader that set off a violent reaction and began the mass killings of the Tutsi population. The genocide was supported and coordinated by the national government, military officials, and mass media, but eventually even Hutu civilians were killing their own Tutsi neighbors. And age or gender held no weight -- no Tutsi was spared.

The genocide lasted about 100 days and killed an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people -- about 20% of Rwanda’s entire population. Shortly after the end of the genocide, approximately 2 million Hutu refugees fled Rwanda to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and former Zaire -- fearing a Tutsi retaliation.


The genocide had serious repercussions for the Rwandan economy.

The colossal loss of life in such a short period of time made it hard to maintain infrastructure, caused lots of looting, and the neglect of cash crops vital to the economy -- all resulting in a huge drop in GDP in the following years.

Since then, the nation has done an impressive job of rebuilding the economy and the nation. Per-capita GDP in 2013 will be an estimated $1,592 -- a major improvement from the $416 in 1994.

Despite the growth and restoration of stability following the genocide, Rwanda is still a fairly poor nation. Few natural resources mean there are limited economic opportunities. The economy is based mainly on subsistence agriculture, and a whopping 90% of the working population works on farms. 44.9% of the population still lives below the poverty line.

By 2020, Rwanda aims to become self-reliant. They hope to rid their need of foreign aid and generate sufficient income from their own industries. One way in which they work toward this is maintaining a zero-tolerance policy on corruption. Transparency International ranked Rwanda the 8th “cleanest” of 47 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Low corruption in government will enable Rwanda’s success to show and benefit its own people.


Stereotypes suggest that women in the developing world face widespread discrimination -- and as a general rule, this is very true. It's not uncommon for women tobe underrepresented in government (if represented at all), have no property rights, or do equal work to men for unequal pay (this one is true even in the developed world).

But Rwanda is a breath of fresh air in a region where women are otherwise unappreciated.

In a nation devastated by violence and loss of life, drastic measures had to be taken -- and fast. A huge percentage of the population was decimated in a matter of months, leaving the country with little choice but to include the other half of its population in rebuilding.

Some awesome facts about women and women’s rights in Rwanda:

  • In 2008, Rwanda was the first country in the world to elect a majority female parliament.
  • It is a law that a minimum of 30% of government seats be held by women.
  • Women now have the right to own land and property.
  • Women don’t have to pool their assets with their husband once married.
  • Inheritance laws say that a man’s property is split evenly among his wife and children (both male and female).
  • Contraception is widely available.
  • Rape is a serious offense and is strictly punished.
Rwanda offers a powerful lesson to other developing countries that are still struggling to rebuild after decades of conflict. More than from a human rights perspective, Agnes Matilda Kalibata -- minister of state in charge of agriculture -- said, “we are becoming a nation that understands there are huge financial benefits to equality.”

At Kiva, we are so inspired by the progress that Rwanda has made to overcome its brutal history. We are hopeful that other countries in the region follow in Rwanda’s footsteps and gender equality becomes the norm.

Although their growth has been impressive, there is still a great need for economic opportunity, with so much of the population below the poverty line. This is why we work with 5 partners in Rwanda to give entrepreneurs there the tools they need to succeed. Together, we’ve made over 7,500 loans to date -- over 60% of which have been to women.

Click here to make a loan to an entrepreneur in Rwanda today!

Stay tuned for the second installment of the Rwanda Passport Series, where we will look at how Kiva’s Field Partners in Rwanda are working to bring financial services and access to capital to those who need it most.

About the author

Emily Wakefield

A native of southern California, Emily is a recent graduate from Santa Clara University where she studied Economics and Spanish Studies. The highlight of her college experience was the semester she spent abroad in Granada, Spain. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in economic development after reading Half the Sky. Emily will be joining the Marketing and Communications team as a Blog and Social Media Intern and is especially excited to find new and creative ways to spread Kiva’s work to more people. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, listening to country music, and re-watching Friends episodes for the millionth time.