Yokohama, 2 June 2013

Madame Helen Clark,

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen;

It is a pleasure for me to be here and contribute ideas to how we can achieve gender equality and empower women to drive Africa’s development. Even in this age, women still do not have equal opportunities and remain vulnerable to abuse despite being an important demographic and economic factor.

Clearly, this is an untenable situation and must be corrected.

The question that we must address now is how to make more progress in removing the barriers to equal opportunity and promote greater empowerment. That will be done when we all recognise that the question of equality should be part of our values as a society and therefore an obligation to raise everyone to a level where they can play their rightful role in development.

In Rwanda today, the debate is not about women’s role or whether they should be empowered or not. That is a given. For us, ensuring gender equality is not just a moral issue, it is a rights issue and it is a shared  responsibility that concerns every member of our society. We have always regarded the equal participation of women in all aspects of national life, including the liberation struggle, as an indispensable contribution to the socio-economic transformation of our country.

That is how we have been able to mobilise our people to make the modest strides that we have done, and we believe that what we can do with our limited resources, others can do.

All of us involved in breaking down barriers of inequality know that one effective solution is to provide access to equal opportunities in education, employment, credit and property ownership, and the legal and institutional framework to support it. For instance, we made a constitutional provision that guarantees 30% minimum representation of women in political decision-making positions. That figure as you well know has been exceeded in parliament.

Norway has done something similar and set up a quota for women on boards of large companies.

In both examples, the intention is to ensure the right to opportunity for all women to access key management and leadership positions that society at large continues to experience.

It is now possible to foresee a time soon when women in top leadership positions, like my sister here, Mrs. Banda President of Malawi,  will no longer be a rare exception but rather one where women’s ability to lead will be so usual that no one will remark about it.

In Rwanda, various legislation has been enacted to entrench women’s equal rights to property – land and other family assets – and to protect them against gender-based violence. In this latter case, the government has set up a centre that deals with cases of gender-based violence. The results are encouraging. Women now report abuse and are able to get medical and legal redress as well as psychological help.

We recognise that the political and legal gains that women have made alone are not enough – they must be supported by financial empowerment. Experience has shown that it does not have to be very big to have impact. Ordinary women in Rwanda regularly give testimony of how a very small loan from a local savings and credit cooperative society (SACCO), sometimes no more than the equivalent of $10 has transformed her family’s life. They tell how, starting from such a small investment, they have been able to educate their children up to university, built a more permanent house for the family or put up a commercial building for rent, and even set up businesses that employ several other people.

Many more tell of how much they have gained from the government’s social protection and poverty reduction programmes such as one the “one cow per family”. Their families’ nutrition and welfare improved, incomes increased and agricultural productivity rose as a result. In many cases they set up some businesses as well.

The impact of such grassroots programmes has been complemented by private and public initiatives that provide access to finance for women entrepreneurs. For example, a Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs was set up in the Private Sector Federation specifically to promote women in business. Banks and cooperative societies have set up targeted credit to women SMEs, and women are getting loan guarantees of up to 75% through a government- supported Business Development Fund.

Figures from all the loan agencies show that women have a better repayment record than men and tend to use the money for the purpose it was intended, demonstrating again, that Africa’s women can indeed be the drivers of its development.

These experiences confirm the generally-held view that women are major catalysts of transformation as they are more likely to re-invest their income in their children’s health and education, with a long term impact on family and society as a whole.

In a small but significant way, women are getting integrated into the private sector and the cash economy.

What is happening in Rwanda is taking place in some other parts of the developing world. The World Bank reports that there are about 8 million to 10 million formal, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries each with at least one female owner or in top management.

The history of our country has propelled women to the frontline of development and decision making. We have witnessed firsthand women transform themselves from victims of genocide to peace builders and agents of reconciliation, and at the same time managers of successful businesses.

The model of empowerment I have just outlined is directed mainly at ensuring that women play their rightful role in economic and political activities, and it has worked for us.

Ultimately, the most effective and long-lasting guarantee to women’s equality and increased participation in economic activity is education – to acquire knowledge and skills.

Equally, it is evident that women, and society in general, will reap more benefits from economic empowerment within the broader economic development of the country. This requires that we lay out adequate infrastructure – roads, power, clean water sources – to ease work, improve health and link them to markets. We cannot talk about women’s empowerment without paying attention to overall development.

In conclusion, let me restate that gender inequality is an old and systemic problem that must end as Africa’s development challenges require the contribution of all our citizens. The African people, men and women alike, only ask to realise their full potential and enjoy dignified lives.

What is needed are bold leadership approaches and structural solutions.

I thank you for your kind attention.