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Empowering Rwandan women and youth essential: First Lady Jeannette Kagame

26 June 2017

With song, celebration, discussion and reflection, the Rwandan diaspora in the UK came together on Saturday for a conference on the empowerment of youth and women.  These two groups have played an immense role in rebuilding the social, economic and political fabric of their society after the genocide of 1994.

The guest of honour was Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda.  She noted that Rwanda drew on the pre-colonial role of women when modern society needed to be rebuilt:

"In our pre-colonial history, the place of the woman in our communities carried great weight, as a person whose opinion mattered in both private and public affairs. This consideration was also translated in the holistic care and protection given to the woman, throughout the different stages of her life, as she was prepared to fulfil her role of wife, mother, and above all, to embrace her place as a valued member of her community, whose well-being was a priority.

"Looking back at the years of our liberation struggle, up to the aftermath of the Genocide that devastated our country, it was only logical that women could not be left behind, as they too had a significant role to play in the rebuilding of our nation.

"This philosophy helped us go beyond our constitutional requirement of the minimum 30% of women in public leadership positions, and achieving the highest rate worldwide of women representation at the parliament, with 64%; and 40% female representation in our cabinet.

The First Lady also had a message for the hundreds of Rwandan young people who had gathered for the occasion, many of them students:

"Young Men and Women,  I also urge you to realise that although you live in another part of the world, you still have so much to gain by holding on to our culture. So, learn to take pride and value your Rwandan-ness.

"Be inspired by the positive traditions and practices of your land, and emulate them wherever you go. Use your time here, as an opportunity to shape your mind and discover ways of adapting your different perspectives of the world, to help you contribute to what Rwanda is striving for.  Reflect on how you will shape yourselves, and your country, into the Rwanda we want, as indeed, the world and for that matter, Rwanda is constantly in a state of change and progression."

The event included a panel discussion on the empowerment of women and youth, plus performances by two Rwandan dance groups and two musical artists.  It was inspirational and uplifting for the audience, who were on their feet, clapping and singing for the performances.

The Commonwealth's Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, gave a reflection to end the event.  "As I listened to the singing, dancing, warmth and laughter at this conference, something profound struck me. I realised that I was home.  The music and the sound of people laughing and enjoying themselves is also the sound of my home in the Caribbean.  And so the African diaspora echos in my bones," she told the audience to great applause.  "What we're experiencing is the Commonwealth family celebrating the qualities that bind it together."

During the event, Rwanda’s High Commissioner, Yamina Karitanyi, compared her country to a diamond that was regaining its lustre after the tragedy of the genocide.  Secretary-General Scotland said that women and young people were playing a huge role in polishing that diamond to even greater brilliance.