Open Letter to Dr. Maliha Khan, President and CEO, Women Deliver
Dear Dr. Maliha Khan, congratulations on your three decades of leadership in the battle for rights, including your current stewardship of the Women Deliver Organization. As a father and grandfather of girls and a rights defender, I applaud Women Deliver for its purpose of improving the lives of women and girls. I have followed your uplifting conversations at your conferences held in the United Kingdom in 2007; the United States in 2010; Malaysia in 2013; Denmark in 2016; and Canada in 2019.
Madam President, I must confess that the just concluded Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) held in Rwanda came as a shock. Your keynote speaker was none other than General Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s iron-fisted strongman. Kagame has dominated Rwanda for 29 years while the amended Rwandan Constitution allows him to stay in power until 2034. Furthermore, the Constitution gives him immunity when he leaves office in the following terms:
“A former President of the Republic cannot be prosecuted for treason or serious and deliberate violation of the Constitution when no legal proceedings in respect of that offence were brought against him or her while in office.”
Madam President, I suspect that this story sounds familiar to you – Pakistan, your homeland, suffered three military coups and numerous unsuccessful attempts since 1949. I dare say that the politics of Rwanda, my homeland, is much worse. We have yet to experience even a single peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1962. Power changes hands through violence and military might.
I digress – returning to WD2023, it is difficult to understand why you would give a platform to an anti-rights strongman, knowing very well that he would use it for genderwashing. Elin Bjarnegärd and Pär Zetterberg have ably articulated the term “genderwashing:
“Autocratic genderwashing occurs when autocrats take credit for advances in gender equality in order to turn attention away from persistent nondemocratic practices, such as violations of electoral integrity and human rights. In doing so, they exploit the often simplistic association between gender equality and democracy to seek legitimacy and achieve regime stability.“
And that is precisely what General Paul Kagame did at the WD2023. These are his words:
“In Rwanda, we have created an enabling environment for women to be equally represented in leadership positions, including in politics, and at all levels.”
Let us take a closer look at this proclamation. Here, Kagame is referring to what appears to be an impressive rise in the number of women in Rwanda’s parliament. The above grandiloquence also appears on the Rwandan government’s website:
“Rwanda is an outlier, with more women in power, proportionally than any other country. Rwanda is the first country in the world with a female majority in parliament, with 61.3% in the Chamber of Deputies and 36% in the Senate.”
Madam President, the female majority in the Rwandan parliament is a façade that is easily stripped away. Firstly, Rwandan parliamentarians in the Chamber of Deputies are not elected by the people of Rwanda – the candidates are selected by political parties. Secondly, because General Kagame’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) downright controls politics and economics and the RPF pretty much owns parliament.
The Rwandan Senate illustrates Kagame’s total control of Rwandan politics. The Senate of Rwanda includes senators elected by the administrative entities whose members are appointed by the Rwandan ruler; senators directly appointed by the Rwandan strongman; and senators designated by the Forum of Political Organizations which is dominated by RPF.
In the 2018 elections for parliament’s lower house, for example, the RPF and two aligned small parties “won” all but four seats of the Chamber of Deputies. A year earlier, Kagame was elected to a third seven-year term by “winning” 99 percent of the vote.
Back to genderwashing – by branding himself a feminist and promoter of gender rights, Kagame diverts the attention away from the grotesque human rights abuses he relentlessly unleashes on the people of Rwanda. Let me quote the 2022 US government’s report on Rwanda’s human rights situation:
“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; transnational repression against individuals located outside the country, including killings, kidnappings, and violence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; and serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations.”
Madam President, Rwandan female leaders are not spared from the state-sanctioned violence. This is demonstrated by the fate of two Rwandan women who sought to run for the Rwandan presidency in the past two elections. In 2010, opposition party leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza was thrown in prison. Her American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, was also incarcerated.
The brutality of the 2010 presidential election was to claim the life of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the Democratic Green party. Rwisereka’s beheaded body was dumped in a swamp in southern Rwanda. With no serious challengers on the ballot, Kagame won reelection with 93 percent of the vote.
In 2017, Diane Rwigara was imprisoned when she attempted to run against General Kagame. Her mother Adeline Rwigara was also thrown into jail. Once again, with no serious challengers on the ballot, Kagame won reelection with 99 percent of the vote.
Madam President, I conclude my letter with Alexander Pope’s celebrated words: “To err is Humane.” Every human being and every organization makes mistakes but we must forgive, reframe our mistakes into lessons, and keep battling for rights. The hard work and the success of Women Deliver is the success of women and girls world-over.