5 MARCH 2018
BY Pamela Abbott, Director of the Centre for Global Development and Professor in the School of Education, University of Aberdeen, UK

Rwanda is seen as leading the fight for gender equality in Africa. It ranked 5th in the World on the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Index. Certainly great strides have been made in improving the health and wellbeing of women since the devastating 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi left women to take responsibility for the welfare of their families, with a majority of male heads of household either dead or in prison.

It was the first country in the world in which women formed more than 50% of elected parliamentarians and it remains one of only two countries world-wide that has achieved the target of at least half the members of parliament being women. The Rwanda Constitution guarantees gender equality and it has some of the most progressive gender legislation in Africa. Women have equal rights with men in the ownership and inheritance of property (including land), in the family and in employment, and there is legislation on gender-based violence. A Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion is responsible for the strategic oversight of policy implementation, a Gender Monitoring Office reports on progress in implementation and women are represented by the Women’s National Council at all levels from the village (the lowest administrative level) to the national level. There is no doubt of the Government’s commitment to promoting gender equality.

However, the research we have been carrying out in Rwanda for the last 10 years suggests that the reality on the ground for the vast majority of Rwandan women is very different. Ordinary Rwandan women may have been given rights but there is still a long way to go before a majority are empowered to claim and exercise these rights fully. According to the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index, despite the progressive legal and policy framework, Rwanda still has a medium level of gender discrimination, and although scoring comparatively well on the gender gap index, it scores much less well on the UN Gender Inequality Index, a score of just 0.363 with a rank of 84th in the world. This is because traditional gender values are still dominant, women as well as men continue to accept a gendered division of labour that advantages men and think that women should be submissive and subordinate to men. As one development partner explained:

They go to church and the priest tells them that women were made from Adam’s ribs. That it is a women’s duty to obey their husbands and be their helpers.”

Women are expected to behave appropriately and to obey their husbands, fathers and brothers. Men are expected by other members of the community to discipline their wives if they get out of line. As one group of young men explained: “No, it is not right for a husband to hit his wife, but sometimes he just has to.”

Women on average work much longer hours than men when account is taken of the work they do collecting wood and water, looking after children, domestic work and going to the market. As a group of women told us:

Look at our husbands: they still look young and handsome and they have lots of energy. We are old before our time, we are tired and have no energy and no longer look attractive.”

Men’s work is much more valued than women’s, with the long hours women spend cultivating seen as much less important than the day labouring men do for cash, even though most households mainly live off the crops women grow. Women’s cultivation work is seen as just part of what women are expected to do. The emphasis on gender equality often makes life even more difficult for women, as they are expected to take on additional work to earn a cash income, as a group of women explained to us:

Our husbands tell us that now we have gender equality we have to go out and earn a cash income. So as well as doing the cultivating, collecting wood and water, looking after the children, doing domestic work and going to the market we are expected to take on even more work. We just can’t cope with all the demands that are made of us. We have no time to rest”

Women have little control over resources; even when they know that they have joint ownership of land with their husbands they generally accept that it is men who ’really own’ the land. It is also men that control the sale of surplus produce and generally decide how any cash income is spent. Men and women tell us that men spent money on alcohol while women have to ask or even beg for cash to purchase household essentials.

One of the main ways of promoting gender equality and empowering women is through education for men and women. The project we are implementing, Fostering a Social Practice Approach to Adult Literacies for Improving People’s Quality of Life in Western Rwanda aims just to do this. The project will use a student-centred approach to learning, enabling learners to develop cognitive skills as well as knowledge and practical skills. Learners, men as well as women, will be encouraged to reflect critically on their everyday lives, including the importance of gender equality and the empowerment of women. In this way we hope that our project will contribute to improving the lives of women as well as men in Western Rwanda through enabling women to claim and exercise their rights and convincing men of their right to do so.


The Fostering a Social Practice Approach to Adult Literacies for Improving People’s Quality of Life in Western Rwanda is funded by the Scottish Government under its Scotland-Rwanda Fund. The project is led by the University of Aberdeen with the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research-Rwanda, the University of Rwanda College of Education, and Rubengera, Gacuba II and Mururu Teacher Training Colleges as in-country partners.


Pamela Abbott receives funds from the Scottish Government for implementing the Fostering a Social Practice Approach to Adult Literacies for Improving People’s Quality of life in Western Rwanda Project. She has previously had funding from a number of international NGOs and the Government of Rwanda to carry out gender research.

About author

Pamela Abbott is Director of the Centre for Global Development and  a professor in the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen, UK. Her research interests are in socioeconomic and political development and gender.  She is the principal investigator on the Social Practices Approach to Literacies project.