In September, national elections in Rwanda saw women take 64% of seats in parliament, the highest level of female representation of any country in the world. In fact, Rwanda continues to be the only country where women make up a majority of parliament.
But Rwanda is not the only country in Africa where women are challenging men for the top jobs.
In 2011 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a second term as President of Liberia. In April last year, Malawi elected its first female president, Joyce Banda. Only last month, Aminata Touré was elected as prime minister of Senegal.
When it comes to Cabinet-level officials, Sub-Saharan Africa now has the third-highest percentage of women ministers at 20.4%. That’s even higher than in Europe.
The rapid advance in gender equality in Rwanda was hastened by necessity. Women had no choice but to take the lead in healing a society that was broken and fractured after the 1994 genocide, which shattered the country. Of the survivors, 70% were women.
The whole of society had to come together to ensure an inclusive reconstruction process and guarantee that this would never happen again.
In the 2003 constitution it was decided that parliament must have a quota of at least 30% for women. This has been easily exceeded in every election since.
Our female politicians are not window dressing. The effects of a female-dominated parliament can be seen in legislation.
Women now have the right to own land, property and to keep hold of their assets when they decide to marry. Inheritance laws have been changed so that property is equally split between children, regardless of gender.
Rape has been included in the genocide statute. The serious problem of gender-based violence has been tackled from every direction, including through legal reforms, police education, the creation of a free hotline for victims and heavy sentences for perpetrators. As for healthcare, contraception is widely available and women know they have options and are free to choose.
Even issues such as sex education and taxes on imported sanitary products now make it onto the political agenda.
It is no coincidence that in 2012, a poll by Gallup showed that Rwanda is now considered by its residents to be the safest place for women to live in Africa.
The fresh perspective that women have brought to government has also led to positive economic reforms, a focus on innovation and a clampdown on corruption. Rwanda has been singled out in East Africa by Transparency International for the low level of corruption and the effective use of development aid to drive improvements in the lives of ordinary people.
Rwanda is a nation that understands the financial benefits of gender equality. As well as politicians, women are pilots, entrepreneurs, taxi drivers and lawyers.
Women have been empowered to take up leadership roles and use their skills and talents to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.
One million Rwandans were able to lift themselves out of poverty between 2007 and 2012. According to the World Bank, more than 87% of Rwandans will be enjoying a comfortable lifestyle by 2030, as the number of poor people drops faster than in any country in the region.
As president Kagame told the UN at the General Assembly in September: “For Rwanda, the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) are a floor, not a ceiling.”
The quota system in Rwanda has clearly helped to speed up women’s participation in politics. Women have proved that they can make a positive difference to peoples’ lives. So much so that after September’s election female parliamentary representation is now more than double the quota.
We may reach a point where quotas are unnecessary. But in the meantime, as the Speaker in the only parliament in the world in which women outnumber men, I encourage other countries to consider using them.
Read a blog on the Top 10 most gender equal countries in Africa.
Author: Donatille Mukabalisa is Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Parliament of Rwanda.
Image: A voter casts her ballot during Rwanda’s presidential election, in Kigali August 9, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly