How to explain high gender equality in Rwanda

Gender equality has increased rapidly following the genocide with more opportunities for women in work and politics.

Last Updated on September 12, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Rwanda makes an interesting case study of a developing nation which has very high levels of gender equality in relation to its relatively low levels of economic development.

Rwanda ranks 13th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Empowerment Index. This is higher than the United Kingdom and the second highest African nation, after Namibia.

Rwanda also ranks high up the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index, scoring 0.388, making it the 3rd highest ranking country in Africa.

graph showing increasing gender equality in Rwanda.
Gender Equality in Rwanda 1990 to 2021 (in bright green).

Breaking gender equality down the United Nations data shows us that:

  • There are more women than men in parliament in Rwanda. In 2021 55.% of politicians were female.
  • The proportion of women and men with at least some secondary education is 11.4% and 16.3% respectively.
  • Labour force participation is nearly equal for both men and women at 82%

Given that East and North African nations typically have the lowest levels of gender equality in the world Rwanda is bucking the trend here. So what’s its secret?

How to explain high gender equality in Rwanda?

I’m not exactly an expert in Rwandan history, but here are five things which might explain the high reported levels of gender equality in Rwanda:

  1. The long-term effects of the 1990s Genocide.
  2. Politics: women’s rights are enshrined in the Rwandan constitution.
  3. Rwanda spends a lot on health and education, lots of social development.
  4. A lot of women are employed in the public sector.
  5. The continued role of women’s support groups in rebuilding after the Genocide.

The long term effects of the genocide

Firstly, the genocide, may have (somewhat perversely) played a role in female empowerment.

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda found itself a country composed of 70 percent women. The violence had been perpetrated by — and largely toward — men. There were simply fewer men due to death, imprisonment, and flight. Killings also targeted civic leaders during the genocide. Out of more than 780 judges nationwide, only 20 survived the violence. Not 20 percent, 20 total.

These skewed demographics resulted in a power vacuum. Prior to 1994, women only held between 10 and 15 percent of seats in Parliament. Out of sheer necessity, and a desire to rebuild their country, women stepped up as leaders in every realm of the nation, including politics.

Or in the words of one Rwandan woman….. “Many women were left as widows because of the genocide. Others had to work hard in the place of their jailed husbands for allegedly taking part in the genocide. So even young girls got that mentality to perform genuinely to access good jobs, and good jobs means going to school first.”

The constitution guarantees women’s rights

Secondly – (and no doubt related to the above) women’s rights have been rooted in the constitution for over a decade – The constitution stipulates that at least 30% of government positions should be filled by women. Rwanda now tops global league tables for the percentage of female parliamentarians. Fewer than 22% of MPs worldwide are women; in Rwanda, almost 64% are.

Rwanda spends a lot on health and education

Thirdly (and probably a knock-on effect from point two) Rwanda spends huge proportions of its national budget on health and education, according to World Bank statistics in 2020 Rwanda spent over 7% of its GDP on health, more than double most other African countries. Rwanda also receives aid money for health from donor countries.

High expenditure on the health care has greatly improved maternal health and reduced child mortality.

High numbers of women employed in the public sector

Fourthly (and probably a knock on effect from the above three points) – A relatively high proportion of women are employed in public sector jobs – In the education system – women have also outnumbered men as primary school teachers.

More than 50% of teachers in primary schools are female, compared to 30-40% which is more typical of most Sub-Saharan African countries.

Higher up the education system, things are not so equal, but they are improving rapidly. At secondary school, however, only 30% of teachers were female in 2016, although this had increased from 21% in 2001.

Women’s support groups in Rwanda

Fifthly, there is the role of women’s support groups in rebuilding the country after the decimation caused by the genocide. These groups initially just offered a place for women to talk about their experiences of being widowed and raped, but they morphed into workers co-operatives, which has, 30 years later, led on to a very high degree of engagement with women in local politics, which is increasingly integrated with national politics.

In every local police station there is a ‘gender desk’ where incidents of gender related violence can be reported (something which I think is pretty much unheard of in most African countries).

Limitations of Rwanda’s Gender Equality….

As with all statistics, they don’t tell the full picture, one of the posts below makes the following cautions. Firstly, 60% of Rwandans live below the poverty line, and while those women how have jobs in politics and education are on decent wages, there aren’t actually that many people in the population employed in these sectors and gender equality means very little to the vast majority of women when they can’t afford to eat.

Secondly, Domestic abuse statistics don’t make for pretty reading, with 2/5 women saying they have experienced domestic violence, with 1/5 saying they have experienced sexual violence – And you can imagine how low the prosecution rate of men is for such crimes.

A few thoughts on the meaning of all this….

Rwanda has experienced excellent economic growth compared to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, which suggests that Gender Empowerment has a positive effect on development, but obviously this conclusion has to be treated with caution because there are so many other variables which need to be taken into account.

If it is indeed the prevalence of women and the absence of (certain types of?) men from a society which encourages development, there are some pretty challenging implications – Most obviously it raises the question of how we are to reduce (certain types of) male influence in developing countries?


This material is relevant to the Global Development module, an option within A-level sociology.

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