How Rwanda (Sort of) Beat the U.S. at Gender Equality

The East African country ranks seventh on a prominent study of the gender gap in various countries. The U.S. didn’t even crack the top 10.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 29, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

America has been engaged in a hot debate about gender-based wage disparity and sexism for decades and still lags in concerning ways. But do a slew of headlines about a new report mean it is time to look to Africa for guidance on how to improve the lives of women?

Coming in at seventh, Rwanda ranks higher than countries such as the U.S., France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia when it comes to equal rights between the sexes. That figure comes from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014, which was released Wednesday. While Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have stayed in the top four positions for the past three years, Rwanda didn’t even make the list last year.

The study determines the severity of a country’s gender gap by looking at four factors: health, education, economy, and politics.

In large part, Rwanda beat other countries because it has turned one of the country’s most painful events into something positive for women in politics. Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, women demanded power and changed the constitution to mandate that women hold at least 30 percent of senior political positions. The result? Today, 64 percent of Rwanda’s parliament is female—which is greater than any other country on Earth, The Guardian reports.

Of 142 counties on the World Economic Forum’s political opportunity rankings, Rwanda is sixth, and the U.S. is 54th—not all that surprising given that men make up 71 percent of officeholders in America.

These rights came at a horrific cost. The 1994 genocide killed around 1 million Rwandans, and an estimated 500,000 women were raped in a campaign to humiliate and subjugate. In the wake of a destroyed economy, Rwandan women—who then made up 70 percent of the population—picked up the pieces. Women took over the farms, gained the right to own land in 1999, and achieved equity in marriage.

But life is far from perfect in Rwanda. There is a lack of a gender gap, in part, because difficult conditions prevail regardless of gender. The life expectancy is only 56 and 55 for women and men, respectively, the report found. Men and women have equal representation in the workforce, but neither sex reports high levels of income. Almost 45 percent of the country’s population lives at or below the poverty line, according to The World Bank’s 2011 report.

The World Economic Forum report also doesn’t account for other problems women face at disproportionate rates, such as high levels of domestic abuse and marital rape. Many of the country’s most impoverished are widowed women living in rural areas that haven’t been redeveloped after the genocide.

One can only hope that with women in so many high-powered political positions in Rwanda, the country will find a way to help women advance, allowing all its citizens to thrive.