As a Rwandan woman, there are many things I can be proud of with regard to gender equality. Rwanda boasts of the highest percentage of women members of parliament (MPs). Indeed, last year, we broke our own record and increased the percentage of female MPs from 56 percent to 64 percent.
This high percentage of women in parliament has major influence on policy-making. In a country like Rwanda that has still a way to go with empowering women economically, having a female-dominated parliament is one step to bridge that gap. However, parliament is only a small number of people, and the high levels of female participation in government are not reflected on a wider scale in Rwanda.
Empowering women empowers a nation—this is a view supported by President Paul Kagame. Policies now ensure women have the same opportunities as their brothers, but it takes more than a law to reform individual mindsets and provide a completely fair playing field for both genders.
It takes a lot to inspire and empower a young girl in the developing world. Like most of the world, Rwanda is coming from an era where traditional gender roles put women at an economic and political disadvantage. It may take a good constitution and thoughtful leaders to change laws and make the political environment favorable to females, but it takes inspiration, motivation and role models to ensure women and girls are actually taking advantage of the opportunities available to them and believing in their capabilities despite negative messages.
I see some of these same trends in the United States. The university I attend, Oklahoma Christian University, is home to about 40 presidential scholars majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas. Less than half are females. Though their academics are as high as their brothers, a popular opinion among male colleagues is that policies that guarantee women’s participation—not intellectual ability—are the reason the women are there.
All of these women in engineering and sciences have to surmount negative and demeaning opinions. They still believe in their abilities and push forward. In recent conversations, I asked some of them to consider what had inspired them to push forward and pursue their own idea of success. What had kept them from dropping out of school, from choosing marriage over university, choosing to avoid risky behavior, and treating themselves with dignity and as worthy individuals?
My answer and their answers were very similar. We all had amazing mothers for role models, and throughout school we were encouraged, our efforts recognized and our successes rewarded. We were taught by our mothers that we can be successful in the face of cultural beliefs about gender roles that discriminate against women. We were taught to respect our bodies, and equally as important, how to take care of our reproductive health. We were lucky enough to have teachers who did not discriminate based on gender. We were given other opinions, and thankfully, that voice that pushed us on was louder than the one that whispered in our ears that a girl’s degree is her husband.
It takes a lot to inspire a girl to achieve. We lack role models, and most times we must dig deep to find them. The words CEO, president, general, and leader still bring up a male in my mind. On television, the number of female guests on TV shows is significantly lower than that of male guests.
A group of young women in Rwanda are countering this trend in popular media by producing a magazine geared towards teenage girls. Their efforts, and others that shed light on the issue—like this video showing the different ways men and women are labeled—are great tools in encouraging a more aware generation to make better choices and let go of double standards.
We all have the power to inspire and motivate young women, to share our stories, to show that being feminine and being successful aren’t mutually exclusive. Now is the time when future female role models are being made. Let’s seize it.