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Rwandan envoy praises women’s success, US relations

Rwandan envoy praises women’s success, US relations
Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana spoke to Adrienne Ross at the Washington Diplomat's Ambassador Insider Series on Jan. 25 (Photo by Angelique Gingras).

Rwanda’s Mathilde Mukantabana may be one of only around 30 women ambassadors in Washington, but in the East African country she represents, women make their presence known on “every issue and corner of power,” she said.

“It’s not just people who came and gave [power] to women,” she told Adrienne Ross during the Washington Diplomat‘s Ambassador Insider Series event at the Lyle Hotel in late January. “Women open the door for their own inclusion by what they do.”

Mukantabana cited efforts to improve female inheritance and other gender-equal rights that were adopted in Rwanda’s 2003 constitutional referendum.  

Around 80 people turned out for the Insider Series with Mukantabana, who has been Rwanda‘s envoy in Washingston since 2013. The audience included ambassadors Sékou Berthe of Mali, Hanène Tajouri Bessassi of Tunisia, and Maguy Maccario Doyle of Monaco. 

Monegasque Ambassador Maguy Maccario Doyle, Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana and Tunisian Ambassador Hanène Tajouri Bessassi at the Ambassador Insider Series, held Jan. 25 at the Lyle Hotel. (Photo by Angelique Gingras)

In addition to the huge strides that Rwandan women have made in many key areas,  the discussion also focused on US-Rwandan relations and criticism leveled at Rwanda for its human rights record.

Mukantabana said ties with the United States are on a firm footing.

“There’s never been a time in our history with the United States where there has been a higher degree of conversation between the two countries on many different levels, even on issues that we don’t agree on,” she said. “That’s what we are looking for.” 

Human Rights Watch report 

But she rejected accusations in Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023, which accuses Rwanda of human rights abuses and repression of free speech. The report claims that political opponents and critics of long-time President Paul Kagame have been arrested, disappeared, threatened and, in some cases, claimed to have been tortured while in detention as part of an ongoing crackdown against Kagame’s political opponents and critics, including bloggers and journalists. 

Mukantabana said the report was based on an outdated ideology that harks back to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which at least 800,000 people were killed in 100 days of bloodletting. Most of the victims were members of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, but moderate Hutus and those opposed to the genocide were also slaughtered.

Kagame led thousands of Rwandan Patriot Front soldiers in battle against Hutu extremist forces, eventually defeating them and ending the genocide. Six years later, Kagame became president of Rwanda, a position he has held ever since. Under his watch, Rwanda has been called a success story, with falling poverty, universal health care, low unemployment and a growing economy.

Women thrust into leadership roles after 1994 genocide

Women have played a leading role in Rwanda’s success, almost inadvertently. Because most of the victims of the genocide were men, and many more fled the country during the violence, Rwanda’s post-genocide population was around 70% female. As a result, women were thrust into the role of rebuilding the country.

“Organizations led by women, especially the ones who were victimized by genocide,” played key roles in Rwanda’s recovery, Mukantabana said. 

Then, when Rwanda’s constitution was revised in 2003, minimum quotas were set for women in the legislature. That year, women won nearly half the seats in parliament. Ten years later, they surged through another glass ceiling to win nearly two-thirds of parliamentary seats. Rwandan women currently hold 61% of seats in parliament, the highest level of representation in any country in the world.

Consensual democracy

Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana speaks to around 80 guests during the Jan. 25 Ambassador Insider Series at Washington’s Lyle Hotel. (Photo by Angelique Gingras)

Today, Rwanda is practicing what Mukantabana called consensual democracy. This is based in part on traditions like umushyikirano – literally “fellowship” but in Rwanda it means a meeting where members of society exchange ideas, share experiences and ask questions about issues that are important to them and the country.

Topics covered in this year’s national dialogue included careers in the agriculture and service sectors, a reflection on national unity 30 years after the genocide, and the role the country’s youth can play in Rwanda’s future.  

“When we talk about anything – reconciliation, unity – it’s because the whole country is engaged in dialogue and that is the central piece of what we’re able to reach, what we have reached,” said Mukantabana. 

In addition to serving as ambassador to Washington, Mukantabana is Rwanda’s non-resident ambassador to Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

Prior to joining the diplomatic corps, she was a tenured professor of history at California State University, Sacramento; a lecturer in social work at the National University of Rwanda, and taught history at a community college in Sacramento. She also serves on the board of Sonoma State College’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Bringing people together

Days after Mukantabana spoke at the Ambassador Insider Series, she joined Kagame at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George’s County for the diaspora’s version of Rwanda’s unifying dialogues. 

“Our journey has been quite long and trying, difficult,” Kagame told the nearly 6,000 people at the event. “But that’s the beauty of it – that we are where we are for those difficulties.” 

Rwandan Ambassador to Washington Mathilde Mukantabana and Rwandan President Paul Kagame take part in Rwanda Day at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Md. Thousands of members of the Rwandan diaspora attended the event on Feb. 2 and 3, 2024. (Courtesy of Embassy of Rwanda)

“We want to do just as much to be better human beings, to be where we want to be [that] some people in other parts of the world have taken for granted,” he said. 

Both Mukantabana and Kagame expressed optimism for Rwanda’s path forward in racial and gender equality, economic development, democracy and in attracting foreign investment.  

Rwanda’s leaders continue to work toward creating “a society where we try to fight corruption, so that when you come here you know that your money is going to be productive,”  Mukantabana told attendees of the Insider Series.

Angelique Gingras

Angelique Gingras is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland where she studies Journalism and British History. Angel started at The Washington Diplomat as an editorial intern in August 2021 and was promoted to Associate Editor in March 2023.