The words of Hillary Rodham Clinton, "When women engage in economic activities, the benefits extend to everyone. When women participate in peacemaking and peacekeeping, the safety and security of all are enhanced," have reverberated across numerous platforms, conferences, and similar gatherings. These words took on a deeper and more reflective meaning during my visit to the Republic of Rwanda in July 2023 as a delegate with the Nobel Women Initiative for Women Deliver 2023.
The Women Deliver conference is one of the largest conferences on gender equality as it brings together actors in discussions on ways to promote gender equality, feminist actions, health and rights. This year's Women Deliver conference held immense importance as it brought together prominent figures and thought leaders to deliberate on strategies to advance gender equality, feminist actions and women's empowerment.
My participation as a delegate allowed me to embark on solidarity visits to various Rwandan organizations, gaining firsthand insights into their remarkable efforts and an opportunity to foster relationships, expand my network, and explore collaborative opportunities that hold the potential for effective change and movement support.
Through these engagements, I gained a deeper understanding of how healing and peacebuilding intertwine, and how they are instrumental in shaping the trajectories of nations. The experiences shared and lessons learned from Rwandan organizations enriched my perspective, emphasizing the integral role of women in driving sustainable peace and security. As I delved into discussions, I was struck by the resonance between Clinton's words and the tangible strides being taken by Rwandan women to engage in economic activities while championing peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts.
In a world where gender-based inequalities and conflicts persist, the Rwandan context illuminated the transformative power of women's active involvement.
The visit underscored the interconnectedness between economic empowerment and sustainable peace. Moreover, it reinforced the understanding that:
When women contribute to peace processes, their collective actions create a ripple effect that reverberates across society, fostering safety, security, and prosperity for all.
Rwanda, often referred to as the "land of a thousand hills," lies in East Africa with its capital city, Kigali. The name Kigali, according to oral tradition from our tour guide, was derived in the 14th century when local king Rugwe after conquering the area stood on top of the hill and stated in excitement “Burya iki gihugu ni Kigali” which translates to “ this county is broad/vast/ huge”. This nation, carries a history rich in ethnic diversity.
Reflecting on the 29 years since the genocide against the Tutsi, the resilience of the Rwandan people stands as a testament to their strength. My experience in Rwanda stirred a mix of emotions, prompting me to contemplate the nation's evolution from past adversities to its current state. This journey underscored the significance of proactive measures, especially in heeding early warning signs, which can potentially avert catastrophic outcomes. Prior to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis there had been several early warning signs which were neglected.
Lessons were drawn not only from the importance of forgiveness but also from the realization that peace must be actively pursued, rather than passively awaited.
Amidst these reflections, my thoughts turned to Nigeria, my homeland, which has grappled with a myriad of conflicts over the past decade - from ethnic and religious tensions to insurgency, banditry, and abductions.
As a nation, Nigeria has been and is still confronted with significant challenges. Given current events in Nigeria (IPOB agitation in the eastern region, Boko Haram insurgency in the northern region , Herdsmen conflicts and others), I find myself pondering the trajectory of my beloved country if the necessary actions are not taken. Especially since several early warning signs have been overlooked.
My journey commenced with a visit to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial, setting the tone for comprehensive post-reconstruction strategies. This somber experience invoked a profound sense of loss, which lingered as I compared Rwanda's history to Nigeria's current context. Parallels were drawn between the grievances of marginalized Hutus and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement in Nigeria's eastern region, with both groups seeking recognition and autonomy.
The roots of the Igbos' agitation trace back to 1967 when the Eastern region, led by Lt. Col. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, sought secession in response to the mass killings of Igbos in the Northern region following the 1966 counter-coup. The inadequate response of the central government exacerbated the sense of exclusion among Igbos, culminating tragically in a prolonged civil war that claimed the lives of over 1.8 million Igbo citizens. Today, similar agitation for autonomy in Nigeria's eastern region has escalated tensions, resulting in forceful "sit-at-home" orders.
While grappling with the weight of Rwanda's traumatic past and reflecting on the ongoing challenges faced by Nigeria's northern and eastern regions, a resolute determination emerged to prevent the recurrence of such tragic events in my country Nigeria.
Beyond somber reflection, a sense of hope blossomed during a visit to the Bugusera community, where victims and perpetrators of the genocide coexisted harmoniously. This visit highlighted the power of forgiveness. Such stories emphasized the futility of clinging to oppression, which only perpetuates a cycle of suffering.
Dialogue with community women further illuminated their role as informal negotiators. They narrated how they were able to convince their husbands during the genocide for a peaceful surrender and also mediating between families in its aftermath. In post conflict reintegration, the women also spoke on their subsequent efforts in aiding survivors' relief and reintegration through practical life skills.
The further exploration of various communities and witnessing the crucial roles Rwandan women played in achieving peace is truly commendable. Its fascinating how the women achieved significant progress without incurring substantial costs. For instance, the AVEGA community hospital, founded by 50 women who lost their husbands during the genocide, stands as a testament to their commitment. The hospital provides vital support for survivors of gender-based violence and offers a safe haven for these resilient women. These women with support from the government and some international organizations provided shelter for over one hundred families who were displaced by the genocide and also supported in developing skills like weaving, knitting, arts, sewing, and bead making, which also became a means of livelihood for these families thereby helping them reintegrate into the society.
The visit to SEVOTA in Kamonyi district further underscored the significance of support groups, both formal and informal, in building resilience. This visit highlighted the active roles community women played in informal peace processes. During our time at SEVOTA, we saw how women, despite their painful experiences, built resilience and provided comfort and support to each other. Notably, some survivors shared how their self-worth had been eroded and how they had lost confidence in themselves. However, the support from SEVOTA helped them regain their self-esteem and confidence, providing renewed hope.
Rwanda's women use of songs and dance in post-conflict healing further demonstrated the therapeutic role of cultural expression. This practice, observed during the SEVOTA visit and across the other communities we visited served as a testament to the Rwandan people's determination to embrace joy and resilience amid adversity.
Rwanda's commendable healing and recovery process was driven by intentional efforts to achieve lasting peace, overcoming considerable odds. The journey was undoubtedly challenging, given the attached trauma, but twenty-nine years later, one can hardly believe that this was a country once engulfed in turmoil.
Drawing parallels to my homeland, there are valuable practices that women's groups in Nigeria's northern region, currently recovering from crises, could emulate. They include acting as informal and formal mediators and negotiators, taking active roles in decision making processes, sensitizing and advocating for peace, establishing support groups to assist survivors of violence and live skills to help economic recovery.
At the international level, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 which was adopted in Nigeria in 2013 is a useful tool in conflict prevention and post conflict reconstruction. States that are yet to adopt this policy should be supported to adopt and implement this framework. At the community level, this tool could further empower women's participation in peacebuilding efforts.
In conclusion, Rwanda's lessons resonate powerfully with Nigeria's context. It is imperative that women play pivotal roles in conflict resolution and peace efforts, particularly at the grassroots level. As Nigeria grapples with challenges, stakeholders must engage in strategic dialogues to prevent crises. Proactive measures are essential to ensure a peaceful and harmonious future for the nation.
Written by Jane Siesi
Jane Siesi is the Assistant Program Manager / Monitoring and Evaluation specialist at Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Nigeria. She is a women’s and girl’s rights enthusiast, humanitarian, and member of the Nigerian women mediators network. Jane took part in NW’s 2023 delegation to Rwanda, and will be taking part in the 2023 Sister-to-Sister program.
Photos used in this article are by Kabarega Nkase Michel. See more photos from the delegation here.