This blog looks at the positive example Rwanda sets in promoting gender equality through its textbooks. It is part of a series of blogs on this site published to encourage debates around a new GEM Report Policy Paper: Between the Lines, which looks at the content of textbooks and how it reflects some of the key concepts in Target 4.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
by S. Garnett Russell, Assistant Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Director of the George Clement Bond Center for African Education
In 1994, Rwanda experienced one of the worst genocides in history. In just 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed and roughly 350,000 women were raped. Today, Rwanda is held up as a paradigm for countries hoping to achieve gender equality in a post-conflict context. This blog highlights some of the work the country has done in pushing equal rights for men and women in its laws, policies, and through its education system via textbooks. It also shows, however, that deeply embedded views about gender norms will take time to change.
Rwanda has made notable advancements in the path towards gender equality: for instance, Rwanda currently has the highest number of women in parliament in the world, with women holding 64% of the seats. In addition, there is gender parity, meaning an equal number of girls and boys, in both primary and secondary schools. Furthermore, Rwanda upholds a Gender-Based Violence Law (2008), which protects women’s rights and criminalizes gender-based violence, including marital rape and intimate partner violence.
In a recent article, I examined the way that gender equality in post-genocide Rwanda is promoted in the education sector, through the analysis of national education policy documents, curricula, and textbooks. I found that all included comprehensive discussions of gender equality, which are often framed in terms of the development of the country and in human rights language.
I analysed nine educational policy documents, all of which mentioned gender in some context. In addition, 10 of the 11 primary and secondary textbooks I analyzed referenced gender, often as linked to human rights or the development of the nation. For example, one secondary political education book (2008) talks about the importance of gender promotion for the purpose of “giving men and women the same rights in the economic, political, and social domains.” In this example, gender equality is framed as giving the same rights to both men and women, rather than deconstructing notions of power around gender.
In addition to exploring how gender equality is discussed in national education texts, I also examined how students across seven secondary schools in three different parts of the country understand ideas about gender equality through group and individual interviews. I found that both boys and girls revealed a high level of knowledge and awareness around the idea of gender equality. For example, when asked about the meaning of gender equality, one boy in a rural school explained that, “Gender balance between men and women is to treat both the same, to respect everyone.” This high level of comprehension is true across both urban and rural geographies, and across government, religious, and private schools.
Despite there being frequent discussions of gender equality in classrooms and among students, and while much has been achieved in terms of new laws and policies, interviews I carried out with students exposed some persistent challenges in changing deeply embedded ideas and norms about gender roles and culture.
While most students supported equal rights and access for boys and girls, several students also held strong beliefs about the different roles for men and women in the household. Several students expressed the opinion that despite these gains for women, women were still obligated to cook and care for the family. For example, one boy in an urban school explained that he would not cook if there were a woman in the house because “We can be equal, but in Rwandan culture there are some things that men shouldn’t do.” These ideas were often justified in terms of “Rwandan culture” and preserving traditions.
In addition, several students expressed doubts about women’s ability to govern due to their biological characteristics that made them inherently weak. These examples show how the existence of traditional norms and socialized beliefs about the role of women limits progress in realizing full gender equality.
Students also spoke about impediments to achieving full gender equality. Even with positive changes to laws and policies, they pointed to the difficulties of implementation, especially in rural areas where knowledge about new laws and policies may be limited. One girl in an urban school explained that there are still problems for implementing gender equality “mostly in families in villages where the parents say that the girls should stay home and do household tasks and that the men should go find money for their women.”
My research led me to conclude that entrenched stereotypical gender attitudes and beliefs are the biggest barrier to the achievement of full gender equality in Rwanda. Schooling and textbook content play a crucial role in educating future generations with more balanced beliefs. While including discussions of gender equality in educational texts is necessary for achieving gender equality, this is not sufficient to change patriarchal structures and gendered beliefs. This points to the inherent difficulty in changing mindsets about gender equality, but also to the important role that schooling may play in educating future generations not only about equal rights for women and men but also questioning gendered biases and structures within society.