Rwandan elections are the next test for Rwandan women

Rwanda is gearing up for its parliamentary elections, scheduled for the 16th September. Rwanda shot to the top of the gender representation leader board at its last election when 56% of seats went to female candidates, far outstripping it’s African contemporaries and most European nations.

Now Rwanda’s population will decide how that percentage will change. These elections will determine the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies for the next five years.

In line with Rwanda’s constitution, 24 of the seats must go to women who stand independently from a party, directly representing women’s interests. These representatives are chosen by women committee members at all levels and district and sector council members.

At the previous election these seats were not the only seats to go to women as female candidates flourished in the political parties as well, gaining 20 seats on top of the allocation ‘women’ seats.

Election observers have begun arriving in the country, and will stay until the 19th when all voting is over to ensure the elections are free and fair.

On the 16th September 5,953,531 eligible Rwandans will vote for the 53 seats that have no specific qualifications. On the 17th women will vote to fulfil their 24 specifically female seats, followed by voting on the 18th by young people and disabled people to fill their respective seats.

Polling stations are expected to be open from 7am to 3pm to allow people to vote and provisional results are expected for the 20th with final results on the 25th.

There are currently 410 candidates standing for the 80 available seats, meaning competition is fierce. This election will be a test as to how committed Rwanda is to raising the status of women in its society and ensuring women get a fair say in their democracy.

I’ll keep you posted when the results are in.

Claire Smith

Claire is a supporter of Women for Rwanda currently staying in Kigali, Rwanda working at a women’s centre.

Humanitarian aid is a grey area I will always see in black and white

Where does humanitarian aid begin and end?
Where does humanitarian aid begin and end?

Humanitarian aid is ‘any project undertaken to relieve a humanitarian crisis’. The circularity of its definition hints at its complexity. The aim may always seem noble; helping those in need, but the reality is often more problematic.

The affluent west strides in on a white horse to save poor, destitute, non-white people in some ‘god-forsaken’ place. Again the west plays hero to a country grieving, a country wounded, a country in pain. We like to think humanitarian efforts are just about feeding hungry desperate people. That we can get in, give food and get out. But all too often the areas in need of help are caught up in war, natural disasters or just the intricacies of culture. With every unfolding moment of a crisis the situation gets more complex.

Humanitarian programs go into areas that are dangerous, where the goodies and the badies aren’t quite easily distinguishable. As a result they are confronted on a daily basis with complex decisions. They deal with the life and death of the people, whilst trying (and often failing) to protect the safety of their own workers. And their actions may not always have the intended consequences. To protect their workers and ensure they are able to distribute aid they may have to pay a local warlord for their protection, perhaps funding the violence. The food parcels they deliver could be taken by soldiers who thus live to fight another day. Days can be spent doing nothing, waiting for the next bit of equipment to arrive, or a truce to be declared between warring factions that control the route to the refugee camps. Often help is given with arbitrary preference; one village or camp may receive support because they happen to be near a base, or because the organisation has heard of them. The traps are many.

More than this, who said they wanted help? Of course when people are starving with no recourse to food, help is likely to be gratefully received, but when must those organisations leave? What counts as humanitarian work? Once you’ve feed them, do you clothe them? Do you educate them? Do you re-house them? Do you help them find a job? How far must charities crawl into the web of a foreign society before they have fulfilled their original role and can leave? And will they be able to leave without tearing a hole in the delicate fabric.

Of course, there are positive tangible benefits to humanitarian work. The simple sustenance the population receives means that country still has a future. The act of strangers coming in to help gives the people hope that someone out there cares for them, that someone out there wants them to live. Humanitarian aid can help the people caught in conflict to ride out the worst so that they can rebuild the country in the future.

But this is just the edge of humanitarian work; the basic understanding gleaned by a student of the subject. To know the truth of it, you must ask those who have been there. Read stories of humanitarian work, read the accounts of bloggers, the dangers, the frustrations, the joys and the tribulations of those out there in the field. When we sit in our western world we cannot know what it means to live in a humanitarian crisis, nor to go into one to help. We can only know the theory and the philosophy behind it. And strangely, this limited view is enough to give us good cause to support it.

We send humanitarians because we could not, and should not stand by. Yes, humanitarian projects raise difficult moral questions. Often they leave behind new problems; dependency on hand outs, vacuums of support systems, governments estranged to the responsibility of supporting their own people.  But how could we live with ourselves if we didn’t go in? If we let those people die because the alternative was too complicated, or might implicate us to a commitment we cannot currently for see or calculate. What would that make us?

We do not take part in humanitarian work because it makes sense. We do not do it because every outcome will be positive. We do it because there are people in crisis. We do it because in reality the world is far smaller than we think. When you see a neighbour in pain, when you see them dying and you can help, don’t you have a responsibility to do so?

Aid is complex, it deserves our attention, and it deserves our scrutiny. But we must never lose that childlike indignation that says we should not stand by. The voice that says not in my name shall these atrocities continue unabated, these people suffer unheard. The debate around how and where and when we help, will rage on. But the question of why should remain answered.

Written by Claire Smith

May 15th – International Day of Families

Not every family wears anoraks and goes on walking holidays in Wales.
Not every family wears anoraks and goes on walking holidays in Wales.

In the West we have a problem. But don’t worry, there’s a fix for it, and apparently it’s approved by mums.

This preppy little phrase has recently crept into our advertising, reviving in us the outdated motto that mother knows best. It seems that society feels like without an apron wearing, wooden spoon brandishing wife in rollers we might not know which cleaning product to use, which nappies to buy or how best to entertain children with saccharine snacks. Despite the rise in the number of families with working mothers we still like to pretend that nuclear family not only exists, but is to be idealised. This International Day of Families too many of us will still be labouring under the ideal that Mum, Dad, Tilly, Tom and Rover the dog are celebrating with a home cooked family dinner.

Our tunnel vision of the family is exclusionary, prejudiced and frankly counter-productive. Throughout the world ‘family’ is stretched to fit a plethora of lifestyles, some you may not even recognise. Remember the first time you realised your family was a bit weird? That not every family wore matching yellow anoraks when on they went on walking holidays in Wales. That some families produced Christmas musicals containing the smallest members of their brood that were so elaborate they could rival the West End. That not every family talked to each other the way yours did. Variation in family exists in one community, on one street, let alone across continents. We get so caught up in the definition, in the semantics, that we forget the sentiment. Family is no more blood than it is bonds. Family are the people who care for you, support you, respect you and protect you. Family has never been so complicated, or less so. The only thing that has ever been simpler has been the stereotype.

After the genocide in Rwanda people built families from whoever they could cling to. When you’ve lost your blood relatives and seen your village consumed by an evil you can barely speak of, you do the most human thing you can; cling to each other. WomenforRwanda is about hearing the stories we wish have never even happened, hearing the voices of Rwandan women because their stories are bittersweet, beautiful and full of life. So this International Day of Families, go and tell the story of your family. Tell it to your kids, your friends and your work colleagues. Then ask them for the story of their family.

Family are the people who care for you.
Family are the people who care for you.

Every family is different, some have ugly sides, some have silly sayings but all have an awesome role in shaping us as people, and us as a society. Go tell your story and remind yourself that family is more than a six letter word.

By Claire Smith

Women Helping Women


Written by WFR Correspondent Megan Anderson 

My first thoughts on this quote by Madeleine Albright were overwhelmingly in agreement.    Women must help women.

I’ve found it hard to explain just why this is.  I would like to say that all women are somehow related and bound together, but this feels a bit too essentialist. Words that come to mind are ‘sisterhood’ and ‘second-wave feminism’.

All women are not the same; we do not all have the same universal identity.  We are taught that depending on things like race, and socio-economic backgrounds we will have different struggles and one fixed voice and identity cannot represent them all.

With this in mind I guess the quote should read, ‘There is a special place in hell for people who don’t help other women’ or ‘-for people who don’t help other people’.  We could argue that there is just as much difference between two women as there is between a man and a woman and so responsibility does not just fall on those of the same gender to look out for one another.

…We could argue that.  And I do feel that it is everyone’s responsibility to help other people in general.

But I can’t help feeling that there is a special responsibility for women to help other women, as Albright, first female U.S. Secretary of State, tells us.  I found a passage from a article on that was able to explain and support Albright’s quote better than I could:

“In societies where women’s resources are severely limited, women depend on the support of other women.  In culture’s where women’s rights are suppressed, the same is true – even if this community exists underground.  Because women have been historically excluded from mainstream power, we have learned to do business communally, collectively and cooperatively, especially in the face of brutality and injustice….Women truly flourish when we share the wealth: our ideas, our energy and time, as well as our money. “

On that note, I must point out that today is International Volunteering Day. This is the opportunity for all of us to celebrate those women who do help women.

Today the United Nations recognises volunteers around the world and strives to increase public awareness of the impact of volunteering. Many NGOs support International Volunteering Day and one in particular, Volunteer Action Counts, suggests ways in which we can all celbrate.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – November 25th

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was adopted by the United Nations resolution 53/134. The General Assembly of the United Nations agreed that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of their full advancement, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into subordinate positions, compared with men.”

The Assembly defines violence against women as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon comments on the day:

“Violence against women and girls takes many forms and is widespread throughout the globe.  It includes rape, domestic violence, harassment at work, abuse in school, female genital mutilation and sexual violence in armed conflicts.  It is predominantly inflicted by men. Whether in developing or developed countries, the pervasiveness of this violence should shock us all.  Violence – and in many cases the mere threat of it – is one of the most significant barriers to women’s full equality.”

This day is also known as the White Ribbon Day also signals the start of 16 Days of Activism against violence against women, with NGOs and community groups to hold events every day until 10 December to keep the focus on domestic violence issues.  These 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women involve groups all over the world who speak up for support against such violence. This year the campaign calls for overcoming challenges and obstacles to gain long-overdue results in the struggle to end violence against women. It pays particular attention to social attitudes and policies that continue to condone and perpetuate abuses.

Read more about this international day here.

Be active and make a difference!

The Great Wall of Vagina

Have you heard of The Great Wall of Vagina? That’s right, vagina.

It’s a masterpiece of a Brighton-based artist Jamie McCartney in his latest exhibition Skin Deep. The artwork, which unfortunately was only on display for the month of May, is a 9-meter-long wall that consists of “four hundred plaster casts of vulvas, all of them unique, arranged into ten large panels.”

This controversial piece can be interpreted in different ways, but many female participants themselves see it as a positive step towards demystifying the feminine.

Our media displays the female body again and again in a range of different ways, but the vulva is always left hidden and untouched in the day-to-day imagery we receive. Pornographic films, on the other hand, emphasize on displaying the vagina, but the type of genitalia shown in porn is very limited. Therefore, currently, the only representation of the vagina available is the pornographic vagina. Also, at the same time, the idea that porn films show what the rest of the media is not allowed to show, further enforce the idea that the feminine private parts are something to be hidden.

McCartney hopes his artwork will make talking about female genitalia more normal. He says he first came up with the idea five years ago when he begun to realize how many women suffer from low self-esteem because of the look of their genitals.

“I had no idea women had anxiety about their private parts. I began to wonder, as an artist, if I could take this any further.”

Mardi, one of the 400 participants, describes her experiences of participating in the artwork in the following way:

“Looking at it from a cast I was quietly surprised. I was very pleased with it. Vagina is a really important piece of equipment. It’s the gate way to life, really. This is a much softer way to record what your body looks like.”

And the piece really is a spectacle. The sexual has become nonsexual. Mardi continues, “I like the ethos of the piece, of showing different women all the different types of varieties of vagina which one can have, which we now know is lots!”

Josetta, another participant, talks of the social significance of the wall:

“It really helps you get over any body issues, I think. Lots of women feel the shape of their vagina is a bit different, because they are all different… To bring back the idea of women’s bodies, and parts of our bodies, into an art, I think is very different to women being objectified with a pornographic, sexual, or the male gaze.”

Finally, she concludes in a way that also speaks for Women for Rwanda: “The whole nature of the project feels very empowering to women. That in its self can counteract the kind of damaging view of women.”

The artist himself admiring The Wall.

We’re interested to hear what you think. Do you find McCartney’s spectacle vulgar, uncomfortable to see, or perhaps further objectifying women? Or, would you agree with Mardi and Josetta, that the artwork is empowering women, breaking patriarchal norms, and demystifying the hidden? If you’d interested to find out more, have a look at The Great Wall of Vagina film gallery here.

Indian sex workers an example of women’s empowerment

This morning I read an inspiring article in the Guardian about Indian sex workers. The article was about a community of sex workers in Kolkata claiming rights and recognition with the help of a local organization called Vamp.

There’s power in a collective.

Vamp is a part of a larger organization called Sangram, fighting to stop state violence against women in sex work. Founded in 1997, Vamp advocates health issues and human rights of sex workers. In the last ten years Vamp has helped sex workers in Kolkata to improve their working conditions and encouraged more and more women to use condoms with their clients.

These are great improvements, but the most impressive change has been in attitudes. Prostitution, a profession which society generally sees as the disgusting and most inferior, is liberating many women from patriarchal oppression, from institutions like marriage.

“If I had been married, I would be HIV positive by now,” says Shaban, a sex worker and a Vamp supporter.

“Why? Because he would have had sex elsewhere and would have passed it on to me.”

In a traditional Indian marriage, the woman has no freedom and is unable to insist her husband to use a condom, for example. In her work Shaban sets the rules. She’s able to choose her clients, choose when she works. She has her own income and she’s able to educate her children. “I’m free as a bird,” she says.

The main message taken from this article is that Shaban and other women in the Kolkata sex worker community are not in the sex business out of desperation. Some of the women have been married and have tried other professions but eventually return to sex work by choice. The problem with sex work is the stigma and the language. As the columnist writes, if we see these women as “prostituted” we see them as less than humans, “incapable of determining their own destinies.” These women don’t want or need to be ‘saved.’

Shaban says, “Whatever rights you have as citizens in a society we also have those rights. What is the matter if we are women in prostitution? Are we not women?”

Watch a short video about Shaban and her community here.