In spring 1994, Rwanda was ripped apart by a genocide that left nearly a million dead. While news of the catastrophe reached all corners of the globe, the nation’s recovery and the key role of women are less often featured in the media. Swanee Hunt, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, shares the stories of scores of women who helped rebuild that society in her upcoming book Rwandan Women Rising. World Policy Journal spoke with Ambassador Hunt, who reflected on the importance of including women in peace processes and her lifelong dedication to empowering female activists and policymakers.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your latest book, Rwandan Women Rising, you shared the stories of women who overcame enormous challenges to rebuild Rwandan society after the genocide. What was the inspiration for this book?
SWANEE HUNT: In 1999, I created an organization that became the D.C.-based Institute for Inclusive Security. I’ve been thinking for a long time about how the advancement of women can lead to global stability; my extraordinarily talented team has developed curricula used all over the world. I started collecting stories about Rwandan women in 2000, when asked to speak at a conference in Kigali. Subsequently, I conducted interviews on numerous trips to Rwanda, at Harvard, and in other settings as the women leaders and I crossed paths around the world. After several years hearing their compelling stories, I was asked by a U.N. official to write a book highlighting a new model other countries coming out of conflict. More than that, however, I came to realize that the women of Rwanda have lessons to teach us in every country of the world.
Sure, I wanted to capture the voices of the women themselves, but little did I know I would spend 17 years doing it. The good news is that made my view longitudinal, tracking the differences women were making, particularly in domestic politics.
But how did it happen? The most prominent enabling factor was the chaos after cataclysm, when traditions, systems, and routines were dramatically in flux. Society was turned upside down, inside out, allowing the possibility—and the urgency—for women to assert themselves without being countered by customary expectations. In fact, in many places women and girls made up 70 percent of the population of Rwanda and headed 50 percent of households.
Despite this dramatic unfolding tale, almost all mainstream or popular coverage of the genocide (such as the film Hotel Rwanda) has treated the experience of women primarily as victims of gruesome sexual violence. With a few notable exceptions, even scholarly research has glossed over the roles women played during the frenzied 100 days of killings and the preparations leading up to this. Such a dearth of attention to women isn’t surprising, given that it was male perpetrators who spilled enough blood to fill many tomes. But one-sided reporting carries far-reaching danger by skewing history as if it’s the story of men.
WPJ: Throughout history, women have taken on important positions during conflict and post-conflict situations only to see their societies revert once stability returns. Do you fear that the impressive strides women have achieved in Rwanda could be dialed back in the coming years?
SH: It’s a complicated question. Women’s advancement is certainly not a foregone conclusion, as we’ve seen in post-revolution Egypt, where women were hardly represented on the constitutional commission and sexual attacks on the streets rose precipitously. In other settings, women may have to fight tooth-and-nail to gain standing, as they have in post-Saddam [Hussein] Iraq, where they held demonstrations from north to south demanding a constitutional quota (they emerged with 25 percent) for parliamentary seats.
I think Rwanda is different. So do the many dozens of women and men I’ve interviewed. This country is a pioneering example of how the upheaval of war can disrupt a society in a way that allows an unexpected breakthrough in women’s leadership. As chaos cracked open the culture, women were no longer confined to holding positions of influence solely in the home. They began to expand and formalize their leadership roles, first out of necessity and then gradually as they proved their strong capabilities.
Also, with their numbers so high—generally, two-thirds of the Parliament, half of the judiciary, and almost half of the cabinet are female—it’s really difficult to roll back. Women’s participation in politics has been mainstream since the genocide. In the U.S., during World War II, when women worked in factories, the iconic symbol was Rosie the Riveter. But when men came back from war, women lost their jobs and had to retreat to cooking and laundry. I really don’t see that happening in Rwanda.
WPJ: You founded the Institute for Inclusive Security, which emphasizes the importance of making sure women are fully involved in decisions of war and peace. How did this movement for inclusive security come about?
SH: This idea was born in Bosnia. In the mid-90s that country was today’s Syria—genocide, 60 percent of housing destroyed, people fleeing atrocities en masse… I was the U.S. Ambassador to Austria at the time and hosted all kinds of initiatives and meetings, including peace negotiations in Vienna between the Bosnian Muslims and the Croat Catholics. Even though Yugoslavia had the highest percentage of female PhDs in Europe, from the 14 days of negotiation to the signing of the peace agreement I didn’t see a single woman at the table. Subsequently, I interviewed 26 women for seven years. One summed up the words of the others succinctly, “This was not our war.” But although they didn’t identify with the war, they pushed for reconciliation. They knew that meant holding perpetrators accountable, because without justice, it’s very hard to secure peace.
Here’s an example: A woman from a very tough city, Mostar, started a radio station where she has young people from both sides of the conflict present the news. After the war, you very often have two versions of news—kind of like Fox and MSNBC—and people stay in their bubbles. But when women participate in peace negotiations, they add provisions like unified education, so that the next generation is not learning a different history and keeping the hatred alive. In these and so many other ways, women work across conflict lines. They connect more easily. And having often been victimized, they have more sensibility to danger and other developments on the ground.
WPJ: Specifically in Rwanda, how have women contributed to maintaining peace in a post-conflict society?
SH: Part of stability is dealing with immediate needs. In villages, mothers made sure the bodies were buried. They started support groups for widows. One mother initiated a countrywide adoption program that eventually found homes for hundreds of thousands of orphans.
Part of leadership is a sense of overcoming, and women are unbelievably resilient. At a societal level, women led the stunning reconciliation process and massive justice programs to bring their country together after the 1994 catastrophe in which almost one of every 10 citizens died in 100 days. That would be 32 million Americans in one summer.
When I interviewed Father Pascal, who was a newly ordained priest and a survivor himself when assigned a rural parish in Rwanda, he said, “The people around me were women.” Their church had been burned, then bulldozed, with hundreds of desperate people inside. He said it was women who helped him reconstruct the parish, both physically and in terms of the community: “The way I saw it, men were more affected by the violence, even though I think women suffered more. Afterward, men couldn’t do much. Women saw that they had no alternative.”
WPJ: You have worked to empower women in peace and security throughout your career. What progress have you seen both through your personal work and around the world?
SH: There is an unstoppable new wave of women’s leadership across the world. More than 60 countries have developed new, complex National Action Plans to advance women and girls. Our Institute for Inclusive Security is at the core of that work, helping governments and civil society develop those plans, but also bringing country delegations together to learn from each other.
WPJ: You started your career as a civic leader in Denver, Colorado, but most of your work since then has been global in nature. What do you think of the U.S.’ leadership on the world stage today, particularly on the issues of gender and security?
SH: I started working on the ground with people who dropped out of school or couldn’t afford health care. It was only after working in that way for a solid decade that I realized policymakers need to be guided by people on the ground, usually those who are working with non-profit organizations. Strong policy development is a two-way street.
Current U.S. leadership is in flux, as the administration is considering the idea of decreasing soft power in the form of diplomacy and financial aid. But soft power is influence; it’s attraction. People like to talk about American democracy partly because of our relatively low level of corruption. But we’re admired as well because of how Congress and the executive branch are elevating women in conflict areas, most notably through our own National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.
WPJ: What advice would you give aspiring female activists, advocates, and experts?
SH: First of all, I’ve been teaching for 18 years, and I’m inspired by students in their 20s and 30s. To them, I would say that boundaries don’t exist. They are only mental. It’s a construct that someone has taught you or you have taught yourself. As Nelson Mandela said, “It’s impossible until someone does it.”
I urge the next generation to think about what needs to happen, not what’s possible or what you’re capable of—women especially. Hillary Clinton has said she has never offered a job to a man who doubted his ability to do it, but women have invariably questioned their own qualifications. I tell my female students at Harvard’s Kennedy School: When you go to “the forum,” sit next the microphone, have your question ready before you walk in, then stand up immediately when it’s time for questions. But it’s so interesting that you have to prompt and teach women to do this. I love women, but we are our worst enemies at times.
You know, I dedicated my book to a heroic Rwandan woman, Aloisea Inyumba, who was the first person named by the president to head the reconciliation process. Inyumba visited thousands of villages, listening to the wisdom of people throughout the country. Everyone had been affected by genocide, but they told her their needs. They said what it would take to unite the country, and she set about creating one way after another to do it.
If women in Rwanda can watch their children be slaughtered with machetes and still prevail, who are we to ever give up?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Connie E]
[Image courtesy of Swanee Hunt]