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From tradition to modernity: Tracing the footsteps of the Rwandan girl

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In manysocieties, when a girl gets married, she leaves her family and instantly becomes a member of the family she’s wedded into. In Rwanda, and many African states, girls have traditionally been valued immensely largely because of dowry.

Back in the day, girls were expected to behave a certain way. But with modernity comes a more liberal society, leaving many traditions in the past. Cultural prohibitions are no longer enforced; with women emancipation and emphasis on equal rights, girls are no longer ‘for the home’ only.

According to 98-year-old Elizabeth Nyirahirwa who resides in Gashonga Sector, Rusizi District, looking back at her childhood years, there is a big difference in the life of the Rwandan girl today and the one of yesteryears.

“Those days, a girl was someone who rarely left her family to travel anywhere. She was always home and, if at all she left, it was close by. Any boy who wanted a girl had to find her at her home. But, today, you can find a girl anywhere out there,” she says.

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Traditionally, Rwandan girls had a haircut called the Amasunzu (Courtesy)

Nyirahirwa adds: “Even in behaviour, a traditional Rwandan girl always limited herself to what society expected and what culture dictated. She stayed away from anything considered taboo. Some of these things were punishable by death and so, it was easy to be afraid to go astray. You can’t find a girl today being killed for going against her culture, at least not here in Rwanda.”

For Drocella Munganyinka, a 45-year-old mother of three, there’s a huge difference between the traditional and modern society Rwandan girl.

“Today, a girl is free to make her own decisions. In older times, when society was fixated on traditional values, a girl had everything chosen or decided for her, including the man to get married to. Her only job was to help out with the home,” Munganyinka says.

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At 24, Esther Mbabazi became the first female commercial pilot in Rwanda. In previous years, girls were ‘for the home’.

“But times have changed.  These days, girls are not limited to house chores, they get an education and travel the world and basically enjoy the same opportunities that boys do. They also do not only have a say on who they get married to, but actually decide for themselves,” Munganyinka adds.

Who is the traditional Rwandan girl?

Nyirahirwa says that in the past, a traditional girl was what you’d call a ‘domestic object’.

“A Rwandan girl was limited to home activities. She was not a decision-maker in society. Back in the day, the husband served as the ‘king’ of the family,” Nyirahirwa recalls.

She notes that taboos were never ignored or frowned upon, as it is today. For instance, in the case of pregnancies out of wedlock, in the former Cyangugu, now Rusizi District, Western Province (which was known as Kinyaga), the girl would be banished to a far island where she would eventually die of hunger. Getting impregnated by a man who was not your husband was a taboo and a shame to the family so the girl was given a death sentence. A girl was supposed to be raised by her family till a man came to officially ask for her hand in marriage, pay dowry and then take her.

In traditional society, there were undertakings that a girl was not allowed to engage in constructing houses or compound-fences, cutting firewood, and etcetera, because these were exclusively men’s jobs.

Ultimately, says Nyirahirwa, all of these ‘taboos’ made a woman dependent on her husband, and unmarried women were seen as  ‘vulnerable’.

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Contestants of the Miss Rwanda 2015 beauty pageant. Beauty contests were not heard of back then. (File photo)

Nyirahirwa adds that when it came to marriages, there was always a mediator to speak on the girl’s behalf. She wouldn’t choose a husband for her or have a say when he came over to ask for her hand in marriage. As women, they were ‘second-class’ citizens; anything they had to do had to be authorised by the husband.

Modern culture has transformed the Rwandan girl

As years went by, Rwandan women started a new journey, to self-reliance and equality. Girls of today are no longer ‘girls of the home’. In this era, a girl is free to do pretty much anything she puts her mind to, including male-dominated fields, like engineering, construction, medicine, among others.

Rwanda enjoys a steady lead globally in gender equality.  For starters, it is the only country in the world with a female dominated parliament, having first achieved the feat in the 2008 polls when women took up 56 per cent representation in the Lower House.

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The modern Rwandan girl decides on who she wants to marry. (Net photo)

Then, in 2013, parliamentary elections handed women an overwhelming majority in Rwanda’s Lower House, an unprecedented 64 per cent of the seats.

The Rwandan woman is now a decision maker; not the second-rate citizen she once was. There barriers were taken down. She is encouraged to not only spread her wings and not solely depend on her husband, but be a self-reliant individual. She is a partner, not a subject.

21-year-old Denyse Umwari, who studies at Kigali Independent University (ULK), says that girls’ achievement in the gender quality fight is a result of great leadership and a supportive government.

“Girls are given hope. The government shows them that they can do everything and they are given equal opportunities as boys. Today, a Rwandan girl has a broad mindset,” Umwari says.

According to a 2016 report by the Gender Monitoring Office, in general, women constitute 43.5 per cent of employees in public institutions.

Women hold key managerial positions in public and government institutions, and have proved that they are a force to reckon with in the workplace, even in male-dominated fields.

During a one-day workshop on women engagement in good governance and service delivery at Hilltop Hotel on October 9, 2016, that attracted female student leaders from higher learning institutions across  Rwanda, Amb. Fatuma Ndangiza, deputy CEO of Rwanda Governance Board, said that today’s Rwandan woman is the one who makes the difference.

At the workshop it was pointed out that the Rwandan girl of today should not cling to the traditional setting because a woman that the country needs, is the woman who is not limited to her contribution to the development of the family or country.

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Girls are encouraged to take pride in their culture. (Net photo)

“Today’s woman has jumped the old barriers. She does anything that a man can do. As leaders, they make the best decisions which transform the country for the better. They are ‘from home to society’,” Ndangiza notes.

According to Rosette Nkundimfura, the founder of Girls’ Leaders Forum in Rwanda (GLF), the Rwandan girl in the traditional setting was not serving her country suitably.

“Rwandan girls are no longer in a society that dictates to them or sees them as ‘domestic objects’. They are just as open to opportunities as men are. They are decision-makers. Women and men must continue to promote equality together,” Nkundimfura says.

“Though we are in a modern society, citizens need to move forward without disrespecting culture. Embracing modernization means adapting to a new era in the best possible, appropriate approach,” Nkundimfura adds.

What’s your take on the evolution of the Rwandan girl?

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Cindy Hortence

The Rwandan girl in traditional society had very many limits. She was not allowed to make any decisions regarding marriage, the home or society in general. This made her very dependent on others, which, in my opinion, needed to change. Girls are a lot more independent these days and are capable of making decisions for themselves, which is how it should be. Modern society teaches girls to be self-reliant.

Cindy Hortence Niwemfura, studentCatholic University of Kabgayi

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Illumine Nyiraneza

A Rwandan girl in traditional society and modern society are quite different. In traditional society, a girl had to fear anything taboo; they had to respect culture and society as a whole. These days, girls have forgotten their culture, maybe because of influence from western cultures. Even though she is more empowered, she is losing touch with tradition.

Illumine Nyiraneza, secretary, Girls’ Leaders Forum

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