How women are stepping up to remake Rwanda

Tragedy and necessity lead to leadership opportunities that once seemed unimaginable. The challenge now: to make them last.

Cynthia Ikirezi (center) beams with her fellow prefects, student leaders, at Gashora Girls Academy in Rwanda. Educating girls and preparing them for leadership roles are government priorities to empower women.

Rwanda’s genocide Museum is a haunting place, one of the memorials in the capital city of Kigali that commemorate a hundred days of terrifying tribal conflict in 1994.

The horror was triggered after Hutu extremists blamed Tutsi rebels for the downing of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira. Habyarimana, like about 85 percent of Rwanda’s population, was a Hutu. Tensions over the fatal crash exploded into a killing rampage that left up to one million Tutsi dead. Thousands of Hutu also were killed. At least a quarter of a million women were reported to have been raped, and more than 95,000 children were orphaned. When the conflict was over, Rwanda’s surviving population of about six million was predominantly female.

Visitors to the Campaign Against Genocide Museum are ushered through seven galleries in near darkness, harrowing images, videos, and maps on the walls, before they emerge into the neon light of liberation in the last two rooms. The museum sits in the administrative heart of the capital, adjacent to the parliament and across the street from the supreme court, institutions that were forever altered by the atrocity.

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