First Lady of Rwanda Jeannette Kagame addressed over 2,000 nurses from all over the world attending the International Council of Nurses conference in Malta today. She noted that Rwanda is the first country to have a constitution that includes a legal framework for gender equality in governance, requiring at least 30% of women in decision-making bodies. This legal framework and President Paul Kagame’s vision for rebuilding the human capacity of Rwanda have resulted in women exceeding this percentage–they are now at 56% and have the highest representation of women in any parliament in the world. Education of women is a priority and they lead the nation in scholastic achievement. Women are starting their own businesses and achieving economic stability for their families.
What difference does this make? Embracing gender equality has led Rwanda to focus on promoting the health of women, as much as that of men. The government has focused on increasing access to health care, including perinatal care; as a result, maternal deaths have dropped from 8 deaths a day to 1 every 36 hours. She acknowledged that more needs to be done if Rwanda is to reach the Millennium Development Goals regarding maternal mortality, but her country brilliantly set up a “Maternal Death Audit“, putting a face on each maternal death, analyzing why the death occurred, and identifying what can be changed to prevent another. Each community elects three community health workers to promote the health of the village. One of these workers is a “maternal assistant, whose role is to look after pregnant women and infants and advise on a range of maternal and child health issues.”
This focus on the health of women will help Rwanda to continue to rebuild a stable society with intact families. The country has decreased the prevalence of HIV from 13% tp 3%, largely by focusing on maternal-to-child transmission. They teach girls about preventing HIV, family planning, and gender equality.
First Lady Kagame commended the International Council of Nurses and its foundation, the Florence Nightingale International Foundation, for its Girl Child Fund, an initiative to provide financial support for the education of orphaned girls in Africa whose parents were nurses. While Rwanda no longer needs this kind of support, Kagame’s presentation highlighted how to transform a nation through a focus on the education of women and gender equality: “We have understood that a nation can flourish only if women participate on an equal footing.”
Diana J. Mason and Barbara Glickstein from Malta