Twenty-five years ago, Rwandans experienced the bloodiest and most “efficient” genocide since Hitler’s Holocaust. Upwards of a million people (estimates range from 800,000 – 1 million) were killed over the course of a hundred horrific days in the spring of 1994, wiping out entire families, decimating communities, and trashing the country’s economy and tenuous political stability.
Since the ceasefire, Rwanda has been under the command of Paul Kagame. From 1994-2000, he was the Vice President and Minister of Defense — the de facto leader of the country. In 2000, Kagame became President — a role he still occupies nearly 20 years later.
President Kagame has frequently been accused of running an autocracy, and his administration has certainly been implicated in some very shady dealings — including amending the constitution so he could run for a third presidential term in an election he won with a suspicious 99 percent of the vote. He has been accused of jailing and even assassinating journalists who are critical of his rule, and smearing and imprisoning political opponents and their supporters.
It takes a bit of intellectual compartmentalization for me to say this, but there’s no denying that Kagame has done many positive things as well. The Rwandan economy has been growing at 6-8 percent a year since 2003, inflation is in the single digits, and the population living below the poverty line has gone from 57 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2015. Progress in gender equality is impressive as well, especially in the context of political representation. In Rwanda, women hold 64 percent of parliamentary seats, 42 percent of cabinet positions, and 40 percent of the justice seats on the Supreme Court.
Another area where Rwanda has made progress is sexual and reproductive health. The total fertility rate is estimated at 4.2 births per woman, down from 6.2 just before the genocide. Modern contraceptive prevalence is at 48 percent, up from 13 percent in 1992. These achievements, even more impressive in the context of such unimaginable national trauma, made Rwanda a fitting host for the 5th International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP). Held November 12-15, 2018, the ICFP drew nearly 4,000 people — health providers, advocates, policymakers, funders, and youth activists — from all over the world to the newly constructed, state-of-the-art Kigali Convention Center.
Among those thousands of attendees were five Population Connection staff members. We hosted an exhibit booth that gave us a home base and an easy way to make connections with conference participants who stopped by to talk with us about our work. Many people were drawn to our booth design, created by Mali Welch, who also designs our magazine’s Pop Facts feature. The dark blue walls were eye-catching, and the provocative quotes from two of our sister organization’s field organizers were great conversation starters.
“For the safety and welfare of women, girls, and people across the world, we must demand the immediate repeal of Trump’s Global Gag Rule and end the disgraceful attacks on women here and around the world.”
New Hampshire organizer
“I don’t believe that anyone should have a say over what I do with my body and I don’t believe Donald Trump should have a say over what women halfway across the world do with their bodies.”
People tittered over our blatant disdain for Donald Trump, and wanted to know how he got elected and why Americans support his cruel policies. Upon reading the aforementioned quotes and hearing about our organization’s opposition to the Global Gag Rule, many conference attendees told us about their own health programs losing U.S. funding due to their refusal to comply with it.
We exchanged business cards with dozens of people who work for programs on the ground, and our field team is following up with many of them about doing events together and sharing their stories with our American grassroots activists.
More on that in a future Field and Outreach column!