A number of years ago, Ambassador Swanee Hunt was invited to speak at a conference in Kigali, Rwanda. The topic was women building peace in Africa, and women from all over the continent attended. She was invited to speak at the time about her involvement in the women’s movement here in the United States
I talked about, here in the U.S., here’s how we brought women forward,” she said. “Little did I understand that at the time, women in Rwanda were 49 percent of the parliament. Then there was an election, and they were 56 of the parliament. People said they’re not going to get above that. And today they are 64 percent.
“What would happen if women could be represented in those numbers everywhere? What would that look like?” she asked.
Out of that initial introduction to Rwanda came Hunt’s recently released book, “Rwandan Women Rising,” and she will be in York on March 9 to talk about the book, the role of women in peace and conflict resolution, and her long career as an ambassador, educator and author. Hunt will speak at the York Public Library in the afternoon; that evening will be a guest at the local chapter of Dining for Women, an international organization that promotes women entrepreneurs around the world.
Hunt is coming to York at the request of friend and colleague Holly Sargent, former dean at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy. She served as ambassador to Austria from 1993-1997, hosting negotiations on stabilizing the neighboring Balkan states.
Hunt also founded and chairs Inclusive Security, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates increasing the participation of all stakeholders, particularly women, in preventing, resolving and rebuilding after conflicts.
The story of Rwandan women, she said is instructive for women everywhere. “Before the genocide, women who were leaders were called whores. Women were devalued, they couldn’t go to university, they couldn’t speak if men were gathered, 51 percent were not literate,” said Hunt. “Today, there is compulsory education through ninth grade for both sexes. Literacy is falling, falling, falling. In addition to being 64 percent of the parliament, half of the president’s cabinet is female, and they are in the judiciary and business world, too.”
For instance, she said, the government has devised a community-based justice system, where alleged perpetrators are judged by people who live in the village where the crime took place. “By having trials in the community, and community members listening to every syllable, there is buy-in. They can tell when someone is being remorseful and when someone’s putting on a show.” As a result, she said, the prisons — which once held more than 800,000 people, mostly men — are emptying, and cases are being tried economically at $30 a case.
As she looks at our own country, she said women here can learn powerful lessons from their Rwandan sisters.
“I’ve been asked, what if women ruled the world. I said if women ruled the world they would make sure women didn’t rule the world,” she said. “Generally speaking women don’t seek power for the sake of power. They tend to seek power on this particular issue, or that particular issue. As a result, they see how essential it is to get men’s buy-in.
“So there was a bill on gender-based violence in Rwanda. To get that bill passed, even though women were about 60 percent of the parliament, they made sure men were 50 percent of the sponsors.”
She said they began to win seats in parliament by first starting to organize in women-only settings. Once they became familiar to other women, they started becoming mainstream and began running against men. “By the time they got to the top, they had run for office five times.”
That same kind of effort has to be made here in America, she said. “When there are vacancies, women have to grab a hold because men are already in line. In this midterm election, women have to push themselves into the primaries. Some will defy their own or others’ expectations, but none would move forward if they hadn’t pushed. Once you’re in the mainstream, you’ll be stronger if you have women to buoy you up and help you develop a sense of self.”
By Deborah McDermott
The Express News