Ngororero, Northwest Rwanda
I was sitting at a soccer game the other day with a few friends after giving an HIV lesson to community members. As we were sitting there, 5 young girls stood behind me and were having a seemingly controversial conversation in Kinyarwanda. As I started to listen harder I realized that there were arguing about whether being a "doctor of cows" is a good or bad job. I found myself laughing and reflecting on young girls in America. What kinds of conversations do we hear 12-year-old girls having in America? As this thought sprouted deeper ones, I started to think about whether women in Rwanda are so very different from those of us in America.
Being the youngest of four girls and one boy in a family with a single mother, I would say I have been exposed to quite a bit of feminism. My mother has always driven the idea of being independent and never having to rely on a man to complete your goals or to be happy. When I was 11-years old in my social studies class in middle school, my classmates and I were asked to draw a picture of ourselves in 20 years. I looked around and noticed that others were drawing pictures of two-story houses with a man and woman holding hands, while holding the hands of two, three or four small children. As the class posted their pictures on the board in the back, I grew self-conscious as I pinned mine next to the others. Amongst the happy heterosexual families was my picture of me with a shaved head, wearing an army uniform. In my hand was one baby, and next to that baby in parenthesis stated “adopted”, just in case anyone was under suspicion that I needed a man to have that baby. I was the weird one now, because I had no dream of being married and finding a husband. I was 11 years old in 1997. 17 years later, have things changed that drastically? Are women’s dreams still only to be married and have children? Can a successful career and fulfilled dreams mean nothing if you have no man or partner to share it with?
In Rwanda, I believe that having a husband and child is a need of many women. While this is something in common with America, the drive behind this can be quite different. Women in Rwanda are not given the same opportunities as majority of women in America. Often women are not able to live independently or leave their parent’s home until they have found a man. If a single woman lives in the village alone, you may find that she is criticized and mocked. People can say she is promiscuous, or is a sex-worker; therefore finding friendships may be difficult. While things are quite different in the capital city, Kigali, this struggle for women is met for the majority of the country who live in the surrounding villages. This makes the search for a man a crucial one. If you would like a life with your basic needs met, or a life independent from the one you’ve been raised in, most times you must search for the man with the means.
These reasons are clearly breeding what I consider a very male-dominated society here in Rwanda. The women are left with limited options, and are often times valued through their ability to have children and behavior as a wife. Why is it then, in America, do women still value their lives at times through men? We have the means and capabilities to have dreams beyond just finding a man and raising children? Our privilege, even in the lowest income neighbors in Detroit, far exceed those in Rwanda. I do not believe that the amount of women on a man-hunt in America greatly exceed those who are not, however in 1997 I do recall that very few girls had dreams of their own outside of raising a family. Perhaps if I went into that classroom today, there would be pictures of all different sorts spread across that wall. Maybe there would be some drawings with families, and others with girls flying planes to other countries, or opening the next big computer company. I do know however, that my experience in life in these short 28 years, I do not see a huge difference between America and Rwanda in terms of woman valuing oneself through the man they found. The difference I do see however is that women in Rwanda have a far greater need to find this man since their life can remain stagnant until they do so. So what is it that needs adjusting in this world to make women more independent and less in need of a partner, but simply just a want?
I believe self-worth is what is needed. Women in the world and Rwanda in general need to believe in their own self-worth and ability. We can do some pretty amazing things, especially the incredibly strong women I have had the privilege to know in Rwanda. So when can we start believing that we are the bread and the butter that we need? This is not to say that a desire to have a family and life-long partner is a flaw in a woman, because I do not believe that. However, when a majority of women in the world have to make this their priority and need, instead of a desire, this is when I believe it is a symptom of sexism. When a woman chooses to have a family because she has gotten to a stage in her life where she wants to share and have a companionship, there is a true beauty in that life. However what I am seeing here in Rwanda is that women are forced into a position where they must find a man and have children in order to have any sort of life here. This is something that I believe GAD here in Rwanda wants to help influence and change. Helping women believe they are worthy of having their own life with their own dreams, this is the kind of message I can only hope myself and others can share with young women in this country.
American women, we are not many years out of oppression. Sexism is still influencing our society, income and life in America greatly. I believe it was in the most recent presidential election that a candidate expressed that companies need to be more flexible with women so they can go home and cook dinner for their families in a timely manner. Perhaps if we can continue to grow out of these systematic flaws in America, then we can begin to understand how to be examples for other women in more challenging situations like the ones women are facing here in Rwanda. I had my mother as an example of how to have self-value outside of a man, and I hope to be that same example to Rwandan women. I attempt to live independently with pride and dignity here. I attempt to say through my actions that I am happy and content, man or not. Perhaps culturally, myself and other female PCVs here in Rwanda are viewed upon as strange or too old to not have children, however we may also be confirming one girls dreams to be something other than a wife with five children. So keep on keeping on ladies of the world. Worldwide we need these examples, not only just here in Rwanda. Be that example and let women choose their own dreams, whether that be with a man, a woman, children, or not. The men will begin to understand, and perhaps they too will begin to fall out of the places that society has molded for them as well. Rwanda cannot come to the place it desires to be until both men and women alike are educated and creating opportunities.