The realities of gender gaps in Rwanda

by Katie Carlson (GEI Program Manager, Rwanda)
The news has been exploding in development circles around the world: Rwanda clocks in at 7th in the world on the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), compiled by the World Economic Forum (WEF). As a gender specialist who has been living and working in Rwanda permanently for the last three years, this certainly surprised me. Immediately I knew this index required deeper investigation, particularly with regard to the data used to rank each country’s gender “gap”. While Rwanda has made considerable progress with regard to gender equality, I could not find a reasonable explanation for how it could outrank other far more progressive countries that didn’t even make it to the top 10. So, I investigated!

First things first: what does the GGGI actually measure? The WEF clearly states that it does not aim to assess “women’s empowerment” but rather “gender equality”. (If someone can explain to me what the difference is, on a meaningful level, I would be happy to know.) But let’s set that aside for now. Essentially the GGGI uses three underlying concepts to construct the index: gaps instead of levels, outcomes rather than inputs, and gender equality rather than women’s empowerment. They do this so that countries across income levels can be more appropriately compared; for example, measuring gaps between men and women in access to education is more suitable when comparing a country like Uganda to Norway, rather than looking at levels of overall educational attainment or resources at the national level. In addition, countries where women surpass men in certain areas are not given extra points for “empowerment” or having more women than men in certain rankings, thus rewarding “equality” rather than empowerment.


The underlying concept that is most problematic from a gender perspective is outcomes over inputs. The WEF claims that they measure only outcomes, meaning they do not look at “specific policies, rights, culture or customs” as these are considered “inputs”. If inputs lead to outcomes, should we not also consider these? If we wanted to look at quality of life, inputs must be considered, particularly culture and customs. The GGGI is made up of four subindexes: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The indicators for each of these four categories seem rather weak to begin with. For example, if we look at “educational attainment”, enrollment in school at different levels is the primary indicator used to measure such a “gap”; if we are looking at outcomes, why would we not use school completion to measure such a gap? Enrollment would seem to be an input, rather than an outcome, that is if we were really interested in quality of life. In Rwanda, girls are nearly on par with boys for school enrollment but for completion they lag significantly behind. Expectations in the home for domestic chores often leave girls exhausted with little time for their studies and falling behind in their assignments. Teenage pregnancy is also an epidemic that is yet to be addressed, and leads to girls dropping out of school completely and rarely returning. So why are we looking at enrollment if we really want to assess an outcome that reflects equality?

For Rwanda, having 64% of women in parliament is certainly an achievement to be recognized that demonstrates how capable and competent Rwandan women are, but should we expect them to automatically be looking out for women’s interests, simply because they are women? Outside of each individual woman in office, what is the impact? When a man is voted into office, people do not rally around expecting him to take special care or interest in “men’s issues”, so why do we expect this from women? Maternity leave in Rwanda was recently reduced from 3 months to just 6 weeks, all while there were 64% women sitting in parliament. The majority of women in Rwanda are still living in considerable poverty and are not particularly active politically beyond voting; one of the greatest challenges reported by Rwandan women working on these issues locally is finding women at the village, sector and district level that have the self confidence and educational capacity to stand up and get involved in politics within their own communities. And these two examples are merely the beginning.

The secondary school girls I work with consistently tell me about the many issues they face as girls in Rwanda, experiencing low levels of self confidence and self esteem, being afraid to speak their minds especially in public, and often feeling threatened or intimidated by their male counterparts (and these are the significantly more privileged girls in Rwanda, relatively speaking.) So if the next generation of Rwanda is still experiencing such persistent gender inequality, how is it that the GGGI can claim the gender “gap” in Rwanda is so small it ranks as 7th in the world?

At the end of the day, one burning question begs to be answered: what’s in a gap?

What are we supposed to take away from this report? Are mere numbers or “gaps” enough to reflect true gender equality? I think not. My problem with such an index is that it seems to completely miss the ultimate goal of gender equality, which is not just for women to have the same life expectancy of men or to have a high number of female parliamentarians in office. It is to achieve a meaningful improvement in the everyday quality of life of every woman and girl. The GGGI focuses narrowly on indicators that, in my view and experience, do no accurately reflect real life at all, and yet many people in both development circles and beyond will refer to this index as if it stands to make a powerful statement about women’s place in Rwanda and elsewhere. While I cannot speak for other countries, as a woman who spent a great deal of her life in Canada, and a considerable amount of time as a citizen of Rwanda researching, living, talking and working directly with Rwandan women and girls, I cannot reasonably accept the claim that my quality of life in Canada as a woman could be ranked 19th on the GGGI, while Rwanda sits at 7th place. Some might say that the GGGI doesn’t measure quality of life, but rather “gaps”, to which I must reply: if the so-­‐called “gap” does not reflect real life for the average girl or woman in Rwanda, what is the point of even measuring it in the first place?

While I feel strongly patriotic about Rwanda as my second home, I am also capable of rational consideration accompanied by a healthy dose of humility which allows me to openly and fairly state that Rwanda still has a very long way to go. Reports like the GGGI may serve to give us a broad general overview of gender “gaps” the world over, but they do not reflect real life for the majority of women in places like Rwanda, and that is what makes them dangerous to rely on or reference as supposedly robust statements about gender equality in the 21st century. We would not want to give the false impression that work on gender equality in Rwanda is now a suddenly less pressing priority because it is 7th on the GGGI, as this would not serve to benefit anyone, particularly Rwandan girls.

As an international community, and as global citizens, we must never lose sight of the focus and meaning of gender equality, the ultimate goal of gender equality, the very reason any of us bother to do this work at home or abroad and to fight for this cause. We are not seeking equality in numbers alone; we are seeking meaningful change in the everyday lives of the average woman or girl the world over, change that leads to a happier, healthier quality of life, and not just a seat in a political office.