In the two decades since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has become the world’s gender equality champion — on paper, at least.
In 2013, it was the first country ever to have more women than men in parliament. According to the World Economic Forum, it now ranks fifth in efforts to reduce the gender gap — the only non-Scandinavian country on the shortlist.
But despite these efforts, gender-based violence in Rwanda remains a tragic reality: one in three women in the country has experienced domestic abuse, according to UN Women. Rwanda is still a patriarchal society and norms are strictly defined by gender, especially at home. Abuse can range from physical to psychological, sexual or economic.
But one NGO is pioneering a method to tackle this abuse, by putting at-risk men and women in each others’ shoes. The Rwanda Men’s Resource Center, a non-governmental organization affiliated with UN Women, works with couples to challenge prevailing notions of masculinity and foster dialogue.
Among those couples are Jeanne Dufitumukiza, 29, and Jean Pierre Iraguha, 30, from the rural district of Burera on the border with Uganda.
The pair had been living in an abusive marriage for years. But over the course of five months, they attended weekly gender trainings where they were encouraged to trade places, in order to understand one another better.
Along with hundreds of other couples across Rwanda, they were forced to question basic assumptions about men and women’s traditional roles in society: why is farming a woman’s job? Why shouldn’t a man do laundry or take care of the baby?
What they’ve learnt is that in someone else’s shoes, even small steps can take you very far.
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