Universities play vital role in driving gender equality

Academic research, teaching and community outreach with a focus on addressing gender equality gaps have played a vital role in the development of key policies and programmes that have contributed towards Rwanda’s status as a champion of women empowerment on the global stage, according to one of the country’s gender experts.

Rwanda is sixth in the world when it comes to gender parity and one of only two African countries in the top 10, after Namibia came in at number 10 for the first time in 2018, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, published at the end of last year.

The Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Rwanda has played a role in advising both the university and the government on gender-related issues.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

“The University of Rwanda applies national policies and strategic plans to respond to societal needs,” said Dr Jeannette Bayisenge, head of the gender department in the School of Social, Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Rwanda. “It is our mandate as a university to abide by the principle of gender equality.”

The World Economic Forum report measures the gender gap across four pillars: economic opportunity; political empowerment; educational attainment; and health and survival.

Rwanda’s gender parity is reflected in its national parliament where women constitute 61%, and the judicial sector where women’s representation stands at 44%. Women in the executive arm of government make up 39%. The participation of women at these levels is widely perceived as a game-changer in the ongoing bid to build the economy and reduce poverty.

Bayisenge said universities have acted according to a series of national laws and policies that recognise the role of women in the nation-building journey.

Article 10 of the Rwandan Constitution, developed by academics, among others, states that the government must commit to developing equality between men and women and that women should occupy at least 30% of positions in decision-making organs, she said.

Bayisenge said the application of gender equality principles in the university was effected through teaching, research and community outreach. At the University of Rwanda (UR), such principles helped in the creation in 2006 of the Centre for Gender Studies to coordinate all gender activities in those avenues.

“With regard to the lower enrolment of girls at UR, which currently stands at 33%, we identified that it had something to do with how the university markets itself, the programmes it offers, the flexibility with which these programmes are taught and how they are charged,” she said.

The introduction of evening programmes for many courses and flexibility in tuition payments helped to boost the enrolment of more women, especially decision-makers such as parliamentarians, and others in the private sector.

The government also partnered with the university to provide short courses for women decision-makers, a move that saw hundreds of women trained specifically on gender equality and its application in all spheres of life, she said.

“Those trainings were for only two weeks but the results were immense in public institutions, because all of them later developed and adapted their own internal policies to ensure women’s rights are protected,” Bayisenge said.

The university also prioritised scholarships for women academics studying outside the country which would allow them to travel with their families.

Opening minds

Dr Anne Marie Kagwesage, a senior lecturer in foreign languages at the University of Rwanda, who is currently engaged in research on university education and women empowerment, said her studies enabled her to attend conferences and seminars which opened her mind to the importance of networking and sharing of women’s experiences.

“I was able to meet the community of other researchers and scholars, which ultimately enabled me to do authentic research,” she is quoted as saying on the university’s website.

Kagwesage’s research assessed the intellectual skills that mature women gained as a result of undertaking university studies and their influence in the workplace. Her work showed that women became more fulfilled, engaged more with younger people and coped better with the latest technology.

Despite the country’s achievements, however, experts say there are still challenges affecting women in Rwanda. They include gender-based violence, unwanted pregnancies in young females who are also often students, gender misunderstandings and challenges relating to economic empowerment.