It is 7:00 in the morning at Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes that rests on the border between Rwanda and the Congo. An early morning fog lingers over the hills around the lake as the women of the COOPPAVI cooperative wait for some of their members to return from a night of fishing.
An hour later, three boats appear from behind the hills. The women make their way down to the shoreline to greet them. Sauda Mukamusoni, the cooperative’s former president, is one of the first to step off the boat, carrying a green bucket full of fish.
Other cooperative members follow her with more buckets and place one on a scale. Several people, almost all of them women, circle around and watch as the arrow on the scale reads 23 kilograms. They lift the bucket together and carry it up to the market, where they spend the rest of their day. At 5:30 in the afternoon, the women gather together at the shore and send out another team of boats for the night. For the next 23 days, they will spend day and night catching, raising, and selling fish.
Female-run businesses like COOPPAVI were almost unheard of 25 years ago. In fact, a Rwandan woman had limited rights and restricted social and political roles in society. The 1994 genocide, killing 800,000 people in just 100 days, would radically change everything.
After it devastated the landlocked East African country, women stepped forward to rebuild the nation. Now, they are redefining what it means to be a woman as they emerge as leaders and business owners in agriculture—a crucial sector of Rwanda's economy once dominated by men.
Having one of the highest rates of female labor force participation in the world and one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, Rwanda has been called a model for gender equality. But the country's efforts to promote female empowerment present a complicated paradox where gender-based violence is still prevalent, and where some critics are calling its leadership a dictatorship.
Empowering women through agribusiness
Nicknamed the "Land of a Thousand Hills," Rwanda is almost entirely rural, making agriculture Rwanda's most important sector and largest employer. In pre-genocide Rwanda, women were marginalized as subsistence farmers while the men had access to land, production inputs, finances, and trainings. Women also suffered from minimal education and legal rights, pushing them into low-paying jobs in the public sector.
Mukamusoni laughs as she remembers the first time she told her husband she wanted to start fishing. She was first introduced to fishing when she started making tea for the fishermen.
“I told my husband I was putting on my pajamas to go into the water. He didn’t receive that very well,” Mukamusoni said. "Men once would bring in the fish and then bring [the fish] home. It made me feel overlooked."
As trailblazers for societal reconstruction, women like Mukamusoni stepped up in the agriculture industry after the genocide. Today, more than 70 percent of Rwandan women are engaged in farming, forestry, and fishing activities, according to Rwanda's 2018 Labour Force Survey Report.
These women are not only farmers. They are also community leaders who can now handle finances, operate farming equipment, and gain access to land. As a leader in a female-run cooperative, Mukamusoni says she feels there are no limits to what women can do.
"Rwandan women are fearless," she said. "We have a great hope because we're really motivated."
Fearless. The word would come up repeatedly in more than a dozen interviews when women were asked what it means to be a Rwandan woman in 2018. The word, though empowering for women, reveals complexities in the government's push for gender equality.
The complexity of gender roles in Rwanda
In pre-genocide Rwanda, women lived under a strict patriarchal society. Chantal Umuhoza, executive director and founder of the SPECTRA young feminists organization, says women lived their lives in subordination under men. She spent years studying gender roles and relations and worked extensively with small female-run agribusinesses.
"Women's only value was giving birth and staying at home to be good wives and mothers—that's it," said Umuhoza.
That began to change after the genocide death toll caused a massive gender imbalance. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report found that most of the genocide victims were men, while thousands of women were raped and tortured by Hutu extremists. After thousands of male survivors were either imprisoned or escaped to refugee camps in neighboring countries, Rwanda's population was 70 percent female.
Umuhoza, whose parents were killed in the genocide, says it was up to women to carry the burden of rebuilding the country.
"They had no choice," she emphasized. This is what happened to our society. We can't wait for men to tell us what to do—they are not here."
Nadine Umutoni Gatsinzi, the secretary of Rwanda's Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, says women became widows and assumed the roles of both husband and wife.
"Women realized they were now the head of the household, they have to take care of their children, they have to work," Umutoni Gatsinzi said. "This was something they were not prepared for."
The future for women's rights looked bright. A revised constitution declaring that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women was approved in 2003 by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. At over 60 percent, Rwanda now has the highest percentage of parliamentary female representation in the world and is hailed as a model for gender equality by foreign powers.
"Of course people were surprised," Umutoni Gatsinzi said. "No one could believe what we have been able to do."
Despite the government's push for female empowerment, it is simultaneously a tightly controlled society. Critics and opposition leaders claim Rwanda is a police state and dissent is not tolerated in any form. The Human Rights Watch 2018 Report reveals that free speech is still censored, with journalists and opposition leaders critical of Kagame facing imprisonment or exile. Unlawful detention and torture of prisoners also remain some of the top human rights abuses in Rwanda.
With a revised constitution in 2017 allowing Kagame to run for a third term, Rwanda could remain under Kagame's leadership until 2034.
Gender-based violence is also an ongoing problem. A 2014-2015 Rwanda Demographic and Health survey found that 1 in 3 women ages 15-49 have experienced gender-based violence.
Hilarie Mujawamungu, the president of the Hugukirwa farming cooperative in the Northern province, is a victim of gender-based violence.
"When our husbands realized that we could do something, the violence was reduced. They started seeing us as useful," she said.
Her mission, along with the members of her female-run cooperative, is to help other women battling similar circumstances through economic empowerment.
"We have power of becoming advocates ourselves. We are fighting against corruption in women's economic services," she said.
Umuhoza says that these violations show that more progress is needed to advance women's rights.
"A lot has changed in a very short time that sometimes people think we have achieved everything regarding women's rights, but not really," she said. "We're not there yet."
In the midst of a controlled government, the women I spoke with say the government plays a positive role in female empowerment. Despite what government critics would call a dictatorship, women find security and value working together to further develop their businesses.
The power of female-run cooperatives
Every Wednesday, a team of 30 women in the Duteraninkunga cooperative grow cassavas, a root vegetable used for making flour. Several members lost their husbands in the genocide. Then Naomi Mukandekezi, the cooperative's president, came up with a plan to help fight poverty with other members.
"The most important thing is that we no longer feel lonely. We're one big family together," Mukandekezi said of her fellow members.
The cooperative, located in the Southern province, still faces many challenges. Many of the women have only completed primary school and lack knowledge in agriculture practices, a common trend for many female-run agribusinesses. They also have to improvise with the resources they have, and the land is not ideal for cultivation.
The women receive their training from Action Aid Rwanda, an NGO that teaches climate resistant practices to women in agriculture. Clare Katwesigye, the women's rights and advocacy coordinator for AAR, says teamwork makes their businesses unique.
"They work in cooperatives as a team," Katwesigye said. "This builds their strength in working together... to build their own strength and to have a say in the community."
For Mukandekezi, the group's determination to learn more skills represents a hope that women share for the future of female empowerment.
"Before, men just saw us as tool," she said. "They always think that women should just be tilling the land. Women are always at home and men are always somewhere. Now the roles have reversed."