The Réseau des Femmes General Assembly

Gaëtan and I had the privilege of attending the General Assembly of the Réseau des Femmes on our second day in Kigali. Upon pulling up to the entrance gates, a gaggle of Kinyinya children were enthusiastically waving with gaping smiles and wild excited eyes. They had come to watch the members of the Réseau des Femmes (RFDR) filter in to the premises, dressed to impress in mosaic patterned gowns. These women exuded confidence and power as they gracefully descended from their vehicles in elegant lines and floated toward the registration table.

The sociologist in me was stirring and my analytic senses were switched on. I tried my best to leave my assumptions at bay, opting instead to remain a passive observer and take mental notes. I am trying to take this in. I am attempting to absorb above unpacking. Still, I can’t help to notice the great variety of ways that the invitees greeted one another: diving in for hearty back slaps, dainty kisses on the cheeks, strong Roman handshakes, and long-lasting embraces while swaying side-to-side.

The membership comprises overwhelmingly of women, young and old, from all walks of life and every corner of the country. I was taken aback by the sight of women gathered together from all reaches of the country to attend this annual meeting, many travelling numerous hours and still tapping the reserve to summon such palpable energy. This is unlike any meeting I have ever been to, and even the press turned up to capture the moment.

It filled my heart with warmth to see how many women presented themselves and were active partners in creating change for the well-being of women and girls, with their collective aim of advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Under the shade of three large white tents that sheltered us from the sly and unforgiving heat of the Rwandan sun, the meeting proceeded in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda, and we were provided with excellent translations in French throughout the day. After opening comments made by both the Presidents of RFDR and of the powerhouse umbrella organization Pro-Femmes, each member was given the time to stand up and identify themselves and their respective organizations.

As each district was represented and introduced, the women would let out coos of excitement that carried in the air and set the tone: this is a family here, working together to improve the conditions of rural women in Rwanda. Each member was honoured and her presence was valued. Here, every one counts.

Astonishingly, even Gaga and I were told to stand and the membership was informed that I would be working with their organization for the next three years, news that was met with a flurry of sighs and whoops and a thunderous applause. The lady beside me cried out: “Oh, it’s YOU!” and squeezed me tightly. I almost melted to the grass by such a beautiful welcome. I was now a member of le Réseau des Femmes.

Speaking out, there’s a lot of ground to cover. This organization deals with a great breadth of issues spanning women’s health to the division of household labour. The enormity of their task doesn’t dampen their spirits. What’s clear is that these women are determined to push forward. They have a keen sense of awareness of their cause and what their actions mean: what we decide and do now sets the foundation for our children, it sets the precedent for future generations.

This wasn’t a quiet meeting. These women were vocal and passionate and respectful. I was in awe of how articulate and forthright the members were about their mission. They were fearless in standing up and speaking out to voice their opinions. We need to have a stake in the fight against malnutrition. We need more focus on Gender-based Violence. We need to recognize that men, too, have a role to play in achieving equality. What more can we do for rural women? These were some of the issues that were at the forefront of the discussions taking place. What’s more, they spent the time to let each member weigh in and give her two-cents’ about defining the work and areas of need.

Even as the clouds ripped open, dumping heavy cords of side-swiping rain, bringing with it rolling thunder and lightning that intermittently torched the sky, the members demonstrated their problem-solving prowess by huddling us all under a single tent. It was a remarkably beautiful moment for me, sitting there soaking knee-to-knee with these trailblazers, under the falling sky, hanging on to every word spoken in the name of equality and female empowerment. What is going on here is important. It is essential. Nothing will faze these women.

If I wasn’t already blown away by learning about how incredible Rwanda’s women are after reading about the integral role they have played in redefining their country, I certainly am now!

The meeting concluded on a high note, with the women dancing their way out of their chairs, their voices swelling into a chorus of song, as the members flocked to have their photos taken. Miraculously, it seems, they had managed to stop the rain.

Before leaving, I even got a few back slaps myself, which made me feel even more part of the family. I am so excited to roll up my sleeves, dig in, and get to work!