Mobilizing Transnational Gender Politics in Post-Genocide Rwanda, by Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel

Review by Saide Mobayed

The image on the cover of Mobilizing Transnational Gender Politics in Post-genocide Rwanda depicts a cubist style grey woman carrying over her head what can be interpreted as a coffin with four skulls: the burden of being genocide victims. They represent hate, rape, dead and evil. In spite of the weight of the thousands of mothers, children, fathers, brothers, sisters and husbands whose life was destroyed by violence in 1994, women in Rwanda decided not to stay still, but to carry these brutalities over their shoulder and move forward. Their mobilization changed not only their history, but also their destiny: Rwanda is the country with the most politcal female participation in the world: they compose 63.75% of the Rwandan Chamber of Deputies. This means that 51 out of 80 seats in parliament are represented by a woman. The current situation constitutes a stark contrast with the state of affairs before the 1994 genocide—in which nearly a tenth of the country’s population died—when women occupied only one in five seats. How did Rwanda’s reconstructive scenario lead into this political gender inclusion?

The book, by Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel (2015), offers a deep analysis of how women’s voices and agency during the post-conflict period was vital for gender inclusion in the region’s political reconstruction. Using gender as a relational category, this book captures the interaction between women, the state and the international community in the country’s rebuilding process. It shows that, together with the engagement of key grassroot characters, political movements can be engendered within global governance.

As a political scientist with expertise in the field of gender politics in the global South, Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel thoroughly addresses transnationality as the dialogic interplay between international and domestic policies, specifically through the usability and utility of the UN’s gender norms. In the introduction, she claims that “women became the battleground on which the genocide was fought out, because they symbolized the Rwandan nation’s construction” (2015: 14). The genocide gave a new significance to politics in Rwanda, it was not an additive factor but rather a constitutive one which changed the meaning of politics altogether.

Women’s representation and participation in transnational activism was fundamental for Rwanda’s reconstruction process. “Transitions embody opportunities to light the constraints women and feminist face both globally and within their respective states” argues Mageza-Barthel (2015: 37). The author reviews the dialogical interaction between both bottom-up and top-down approaches and frames its difficulties, particularly within a patriarchal state.

Based on research of the periods 1994 and 2008, this books departs from the macro to subsequently arrive at the micro level of analysis. The first two chapters succeed at covering the complex phenomenon of translating the UN’s international gender frameworks to the national level. It offers an accurate review of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, (1981); the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) and Resolution 1325 (2000). These three mechanisms established the criteria that became central for what characterized the first decade of the new millennium regarding Rwanda’s political negotiation. Rwandan women   used them as argumentative and discursive tools to compose what later on materialized into national legal mechanisms.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 narrate the complex process of transnational feminism within globalization processes into the local spheres. The author reviews women’s representation and participation in transnational activism. During the nineties a new African feminism (Mikell, 1995) materialized. This was the product of the UN Decade of Women (1976-1985), particularly during the World Women’s Conferences, where a transnational women’s movement (TWM) emerged. During the Rwandan pre-genocide period the strongest women’s organizations emerged.

Nevertheless, the genocide interfered with this process and resignified it. Several NGOs enlisted

women as political actors during the genocide’s aftermath. Once again, the interaction between the state, the UN’s gender discourse and female organizations gave birth to crucial institutional structures, such as the Gender Ministry, the Rwandan Women’s Parliamentary Forum, the National Women’s Councils (NWC). Ergo, women’s political subjectivity consolidated due to their increasing participation in politics.

Another important aspect presented in the book is the issue of sexual violence. With the Rwanda genocide being one of the most brutal instances of sexual violence (United Nations statistics reveal that between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of the 1994 genocide), Mageza-Barthel points out how women in Rwanda managed to generate impact by creating advocacy for the recognition of gender-specific experiences during the genocide. “Sexual violation was not understood as instrumental to the genocide, but rather regarded as singular or even marginal assault” (2015: 87). Due to extensive lobbying, sexual violence in the 1996 Organic Law (the most significant for guiding gender-specific experiences post-genocide) went from being framed into the fourth category—the less punitive—to the first one: which consigned the most prominent génocidaires. The explanation of sexual violence during conflict has been a complex task in which the international community has engaged a wide range of actors.

A strength of this book is the use of in-depth interviews with key grassroots participants, providing personal insight into women’s experiences during the transition. This is particularly highlighted in chapter four with the testimonial of Aloisea Inyumba, Minister for Gender and Family Promotion appointed in 1994, who played a vital role in Rwanda’s gender inclusion during its reconstruction.

This text is recommended for academics and international relations scholars interested in pursuing a comparative gender analysis in African transnationalism, particularly in the domestication of the UN’s international gender schemas. Chapter 1 can be used as a good theoretical basis for understanding international gender politics from both a historical and a political perspective. Furthermore, it describes how systematic social problems in the country could shift due to women’s participation in the construction of a more gender inclusive society.

Being a book adapted from PhD research, Mobilizing Transnational Gender Politics in Post-genocide Rwanda might, at times, be a bit dense, for instance with the evaluation of the Rwandan legislative results. Nevertheless, the author manages to convey her main argument throughout the six chapters: a deep analysis on how international norms have mattered for gender politics in Rwanda within the interaction of the global (the United Nations gender frameworks); the national (the Rwandan State); and, moreover, the local (grassroots movements led by women whose voices address their specific agency during the post-conflict period ) within a transnational perspective.

About the author:

Saide Mobayed is a current Global Studies master’s program student in the University of Vienna. Her research interests focus on the intersectionality between gender and migration within the international human rights regime.