After traveling over 36 hours, I quickly checked into my hotel and showered. I then ran off to a women's empowerment panel at a cute cafe on top of the Kigali Public Library, overlooking the beautiful hills of Rwanda. For my entire professional career, most of my weeknights are spending organizing and attending similar panel events about women's leadership. It was such a cool opportunity for me to start my vacation doing something so familiar to me. I was so eager to listen to what the women had to share, and very curious to hear if the narrative of feminism they shared was similar to that in the United States. Overall, it felt the same, and I learned so much from this rare opportunity. I left feeling empowered and connected!
I came with an open mind, trying hard to remove whatever biases I may hold and to listen with no expectations. I was the only visibly White person in the entire room, which consisted predominantly of young Rwandan women and a few men. I very much recognize the tremendous privileges I had as a White American woman who had the financial means to travel so far. I assume many of the other women in the audience were young professionals. I wondered what topics would be discussed. Were the challenges these young professional women were experiencing any different from those myself and my peers in the States were experiencing?
The narrative of feminism they used sounded just like the one I hear back home. Many of the panelists and audience members explicitly used terms such as feminist, patriarchy, and reclaiming. The main themes were owning your power and building a sisterhood to support other women and girls as we each individually grow in our leadership. Topics shared included confidence, body image, female relationships, marriage, abortion, and sexual harassment. Many of the comments included an intersectional approach, inclusive of various sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses. Many also recognized their urban and professional privilege and expressed a desire to support the advancement of rural women and girls in villages. Not to my surprise, I did not explicitly hear the phrase "women of color," which of course makes sense given the context of Rwanda. While in the States, in many feminist conversations, women of color, race, and ethnicity are increasingly being mentioned, I didn't notice this in the comments at the event. Overall, the stories shared by the panelists and the audience members deeply resonated with me as I too struggle not only to empower women everywhere, but also myself. Check out #GirlTalkinRwanda and #GirlsTalkinRwanda to learn more about what was discussed.
Rwanda is the #1 country in the world in terms of having the highest percentage of female Parliamentarians. I was very curious to hear how or if this would come up during a women's empowerment event. It was mentioned a few times and mainly with frustration. Those who shared explained that they wanted their female Parliamentarians to do more for women and girls. It also seemed that these Parliamentarians were much older than the women at the event. I hope more young women run for office in Rwanda soon!
Attending this event affirmed my hope that women all over the world are finally stepping into their power to change the world for the betterment of everyone. At this very moment, women and girls in most countries have more rights than they have ever had before. Of course, and especially now in my country, we must defend those rights daily, for they can be taken from us at any moment. However, I will continue to believe that empowering women leaders and those from other underrepresented communities is the best way to change the world.
Thank you to Girl District and Innovation Village for hosting this amazing event! Special thanks to the truly inspirational panelists, Judicaelle Irakoze, Founder and Director of Choose Yourself and Abigaelle Closet; Tricia Twasiima, Ugandan Feminist Lawyer; Aline Kabanda, Country Director, Akilah Institute; and Julian Ingabire Kayibanda, Country Director at International Child Resource Institute.
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