'The job of rebuilding Rwanda fell to us women'

Embroiderers at work Some women earn a living making jewellery and doing embroidery to sell to tourists

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So many men were murdered during Rwanda's 1994 genocide that the women were left to pick up the pieces... but it has not been an easy task.

There is a buzz in Kigali. It is the weekend and Dr Jose Chameleone is in town.

The concert venue is filling up, not just with a young crowd but families too - children, mothers and fathers.

They are all here to see one of the most popular rap artists in East Africa perform.

After half an hour, he eventually appears. Clad in a shiny, gold tracksuit, he works the crowd and waves his native Ugandan flag all over the place. Two scantily clad women gyrate by his side.

And then there is something unexpected.

It is not the first phrase you expect to come out of a chauvinistic-looking pop star's mouth but he shouts: "Women, together! Say no to domestic violence!"

I did not expect it, but somehow I was not entirely surprised. It seems Dr Chameleone knows how to appeal to the modern Rwandan woman - headstrong, independent and eager to fight for her rights.

This passion for gender equality is an enthusiasm influenced by the events of almost 20 years ago, when one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th Century left many of the country's men slaughtered.

Start Quote

Women were the building blocks of the relatively stable nation you see before you today”

End Quote MP Faith Mukakalisa

"The job of rebuilding Rwanda fell to us," MP Faith Mukakalisa tells me.

"We've been shouting about women's empowerment ever since."

Staying a housewife, she says, was never an option. There were businesses to run, fields to sow, important decisions to make.

Now women hold 56% of the seats in Rwanda's parliament, by far the highest percentage of female MPs anywhere in the world.

The post-genocide constitution, introduced by the ruling RPF party, ensures a 30% quota for female MPs and also stipulates equal rights for both genders in education, land and personal finance.

Women hold the power to review laws, amend them and eradicate discrimination wherever they see it.

"You cannot deny it," Ms Mukakalisa says, "women were the building blocks of the relatively stable nation you see before you today."

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But reaching stability has not been easy.

That becomes evident when I visit a group of women embroiderers at a local factory.

"Imagine coming to work," they explain, "and having to sit next to the wife of the man who killed your husband or the woman whose partner is living in exile after murdering your brother."

Yet a determination to normalise their lives, put food back on the table and learn new skills has given them the strength to unite. Whereas once their families were at war, now these women sit alongside each other, singing and chatting about village life - making a living.

Their employer says nothing makes her happier than watching a woman withdraw her own money, with her own bank card, for the first time.

But there is still so much more to do.

Start Quote

Mariame

Perhaps (my daughter) will grow up to be a politician, a teacher or an engineer ”

End Quote Marie Aimee Umugeni Women's centre manager

Despite the fact that in the last five years, one million Rwandans have emerged from poverty, the average wage here is still little more than $1 (60p) a day.

Life expectancy is just 50. And as Dr Chameleone the rapper implies, domestic violence still affects a huge number of women.

On my last day in Rwanda, Marie Aimee Umugeni - the manager of a women's centre in the Nyamirambo district - takes me on a walk through the colourful and muddy market streets of the area.

She is due to give birth any day now.

As we stop for a rest, she tells me she is expecting a baby girl and she cannot conceal her excitement.

"What is it you hope for most for your daughter, Marie Aimee?" I ask her.

"That Rwanda continues to succeed," she says. "That my baby has a good education. Perhaps she'll grow up to be a politician, a teacher or an engineer.

"It's not like when I was young. Nothing will stop her. She'll be able to do whatever she wants."

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