Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Birth of a Movement: Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Women's Rights in Rwanda and the United States

How does the birth of a feminist movement in a nation shape the later culture in the country? For insight on this question we can look to the United States and Rwanda, two countries which had two vastly different starting points for the push toward women's equality.

The women's movement in the United States saw its birth in the 1800's with the suffragettes. Encouraging citizens to take to the streets to march, the suffragettes worked for increased political power and representation with initiatives for women to have full citizenship and the right to vote. They also tackled issues surrounding the amount of agency a women had at home, working for women to have custody over their children as well as the right to divorce.

While men were involved in the early American women's rights movement, it was women like Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton who created the backbone of the suffragettes. While the messages they promoted were vital to the promotion of women's rights, the lives they lead were equally important for setting the stage for the American tradition of grassroots feminism. Susan B Anthony put work ahead of having children and challenged modern norms of how a woman should act by travelling on the road alone while Elizabeth Stanton showed her peers one could have a family while still being publicly bold and politically engaged. Together these two women set the stage for the generations of women after them to use their own voices and leadership to push for women's rights and equality from inside the home to the highest levels of government.

It is not always the case that women create the catalyst for change that changes the landscape for how much political power a woman can obtain. In 1994 Rwanda suffered a genocide that left much of the male population either dead or in jail, resulting in 70% of the population being women. This phenomenon led to the leader Kagame and the government to rewrite the Constitution instituting a requirement that 30% of Parliamentary positions were given to women, and women's education was launched as an important goal for the country. Overnight Rwandan women went from a world of traditional patriarchy where they had trouble owning land to one in which they would take a prominent role in governing the country.

In a recent story, the authors of the podcast Invisibilia looked at whether or not these recent changes in Rwanda also changed how society and culture treated women. In other words, did the Rwandan society change from "the outside in?" They found that although women had power in the public sphere, in the private they could not escape the expectations of being a traditional Rwandan women that did not have equal power in the home as their male counterparts. Also, since the change that gave the Rwandan women political power came from the top down, they were seen as ungrateful when they voiced the issues they were experiencing at home.

The comparison of the United States and Rwanda shows that while top down feminist movements may institute gender equality in political representation faster than a bottom up movement, but it often will not reflect the cultural reality most of the nation's women live in. While the United States may not have the same representation of women in political offices as Rwanda, the bottom up creation of the women's movement in the United started a tradition in which women can use their voices to push for such a change.


Kyle Kate Dudley said...

The contrast you expose between the political and the 'cultural reality' is very interesting and very important. This makes me appreciate the grassroots-ness of our feminist and women's movements despite US women's lack of representation in government. However, it also encourages all of us to understand the full effect of the 'top-down' or 'bottom-up' approach, and decide which way we want to tackle which problems in our society. I'd never thought of the approach to a movement as a choice, but of course it is: perhaps one way is better for some contexts, while being detrimental in others.

Flamingo said...

Thank you for this article!
I actually studied a lot about the Rwanda genocide during high school and I often think that it is not a topic people are familiar with even though in occurred just 22 years ago. Thus I found your comparison to be very interesting and refreshing in the sense that it is not one commonly made. It also is intriguing to see that they have a majorly female parliament but this does not magically change the reality of women's every-day lives.