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Global leadership: In Rwanda, women run the show

Global leadership: Rwanda, a tiny African nation, has the highest proportion of women leaders.

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"If women earn money, and their husbands don't take it, it goes toward the family, toward education, toward health. With most men – not always, but most – it goes toward banana beer," she says.

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But behind their soothing image, Rwanda's female politicians are using political muscle to get things done. Women in Parliament have been credited with pushing through laws protecting women and children against domestic and gender-based violence and establishing women's rights to own land and inherit property.

The political ascent of women may stem from Rwanda's troubled history. The 1994 genocide killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days; millions of Hutus fled the country after the genocide.

To Ms. Mukantabana, the horror meant the country had little choice but to try trusting women with what had traditionally been men's work. "Men with power before brought catastrophe," she says. "After, women were accepted to have power in the country as well."

But Dinah Musindarwezo, gender equality specialist at the Norwegian People's Aid offices here, says the emergence of women leaders reflected an urgent practicality. Women are believed to have made up 70 percent of Rwanda's postgenocide population, and thousands – widowed, abandoned, or orphaned – became heads of their households, a new phenomenon in a previously patriarchal society. As necessary as that development may have been it doesn't explain the rise of women to positions of power. That, Ms. Musindarwezo and others agree, can only come with political will at the highest levels. "Gender roles changed because women, not just men, were breadwinners, but that doesn't necessarily lead to political participation or a chance, as a woman, to be a minister," she says.

In fact, Musindarwezo cautions, logical fallacies lurk everywhere in a discussion about women's role in politics. "Being a woman does not automatically make you gender sensitive or willing to work for gender equality," she says.

Nor does it mean you're always going to promote – or even agree on – what is good for women. Last year, Parliament passed a law cutting maternity leave for women in half.

"People asked, 'How could such a law pass with a majority 56 percent of women in Parliament?' " says Musindarwezo.

But in spite of the symbolic importance of the numbers, female politicians in Rwanda don't necessarily see women as a discrete constituency.

"These women are at the top, but they do not descend. We do not see them in the village. They do not know how ordinary women in Rwanda live," says one woman in Kigali who asked that her name be withheld. "Women in Parliament do not make a big difference in our lives."

Musindarwezo agrees female politicians need to be held to greater accountability to female citizens. "They're not answerable to women," she says. "We don't have a direct line between women in communities and the leadership."