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Women Entrepreneurs And Business Inequality In Rwanda

Women Entrepreneurs And Business Inequality In Rwanda

This is the second in a two-part AFKInsider series on female participation in Rwandan politics and business. The first focused on the political system, and how it determines the extent to which education of girls, family planning and traditional male-female relations secure more women into the circles of decision-making. Many question if Rwanda’s gender quotas in parliament and an increase in female leadership result in more equitable and democratic governance. 

Part two in this AFKInsider series investigates inequalities that hinder Rwandan women’s participation in business.

Research shows that improved economic status of women entrepreneurs is good for the economic well being of their families.

Central to this is the challenges women entrepreneurs face that influence their performance.

In most parts of Africa women contribute to household income. Their work varies depending on where they live and their class status. In rural Rwanda women produce food and/or cash crops, participate in small associations, and engage in small-scale commerce.

Those with little or no land may work on the farms of others. In more urban areas poor women may work as day laborers or engage in commerce, while women with education and access to resources may hold a salaried jobs and/or run small business or non-governmental organizations.

Of course, one has to be cautious as “women” in Rwanda (or in any other country) cannot be taken as a homogeneous category. Class does matter. The urban-rural dichotomy does make a difference.

“The demands on women are heavy,” said Catharine Newbury, professor emerita of government at Smith College. “Engaging in an income-earning occupation is usually expected of women, and women want to engage in productive as well as reproductive labor.”


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Grace Mbabazi Mulinda is managing director of Royallinks, a cargo handling, logistics and support company in Kigali.

In Rwanda, a traditionally male-dominated business environment, if a woman wants to grow her business,  she has to understand the importance of having the right contacts and networking, Mulinda said. “It is through networking that you will be able to learn of new big business ideas and get deals.”

She shared her story on the Rwandan government Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion website.

Her story draws attention to the difference in daily life between Rwanda’s wealthy and poor. Upper- and middle-class Rwandan women usually have household help. For those women who want to engage in politics, especially rural women, the burdens of participation in local government councils and associations are
heavy. They have to produce food as well as care for children – and they may not have help.

“Women may also have to deal with complaints from husbands who may see some negatives (wife is often away from home) and few positives from the unpaid work on government councils at
the local level,” Newbury told AFKInsider.

Filip Reyntjens is a professor of African law and politics at the
Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp.

“The better-off women in Rwanda – and Africa more generally – have staff to run their households and many are not active
in associational life,” Reyntjens said in an interview with AFKInsider. “I imagine it’s easier for them to engage in business than for many European women.”

Do more women in parliament mean more opportunities for women?

Rwanda has seen impressive and stable economic growth despite a slowdown in real gross domestic product growth from 7.2 percent in 2012 to growth to 4.6 percent in 2013.

According to the African Development Bank, its economy is projected to recover to 7 percent and 7.4 percent in 2014 and 2015 respectively due to improved services, agriculture productivity and sustained
investment.

Behind the scenes, many praise President Paul
Kagame’s policies.

In Rwanda, “business has become veritably the new official religion,” said Helen Hintjens, a senior lecturer at the International Institute of
Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in an earlier report.

At the same time, Kagame and his regime have been receiving numerous criticisms.

Many researchers feel that “women don’t make that much difference
in politics.,” Reyntjens said in his latest book, “Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda. “This is due in large part due to the closed nature of the Rwandan political system where legislators – be they women or men – have little influence.”

Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) practices single-party rule despite the official multiparty setting of the political system, according to research by Jennie Burnet, associate professor at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Louisville.

“While parliament is majority female, most of these women are card-carrying members of the RPF or its coalition partners,” Burnet said in a 2011 academic article published in the journal Politics & Gender. “In addition, women elected to seats reserved for women were nominated, or at least vetted, by the RPF via the Forum of Political Organizations. Thus, most of these women owe allegiance to the RPF, rather than to the constituencies who elected them.”

In several African countries, bringing more women into parliament, or even proposing to do so, has aroused significant opposition, often directed at women politicians and women candidates
themselves, according to Gretchen Bauer, professor and chairwoman
of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware.

More women MPs, more democratic governance?

We do not know how much female representation influences democratic governance in Rwanda,. Some experts such as Burnet are hopeful that should democratic governance emerge, women will play an important role in it.

“Regardless of whether the RPF served its own ends through the increased protection of women’s rights and the greater representation of women in government, these policies could lead to transformations in political identities, subjectivities, and agencies and might pave the way for effective engagement in democratic governance should it emerge,” Burnet said.

Reyntjens argues in his book that, “while, historically speaking, several women played an important role in the RPF’s hierarchy and later in government, and the RPF genuinely supported women’s rights, they increasingly served more as an instrument of legitimizing and preserving RPF power.”

Measures such as the gender quota can speed up or broaden women’s political participation, Bauer said. However, the “much slower ‘incremental approach’ that waits for political and socio-economic changes over time,” may bring about a more equitable society.

The political change is certainly seen Rwanda, but prospects for an equitable society remain just that — prospects.

Istvan Tarrosy is assistant professor of political science and director of the Africa Research Center at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He was Fulbright Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for African Studies, University of Florida in 2013 and early 2014., co-editor of “The African State in a Changing Global Context. Breakdowns and Transformations,” (Berlin, 2010) and editor of Afrika Tanulmanyok, the Hungarian journal of African Studies.