Revisiting the depths of gender equality in ancient Rwanda: A historical perspective

By Esther Muhozi
On 21 May 2024 at 11:41

In these times of global engagement, some dare to unfairly criticize our Rwandan ancestors for their alleged lack of gender equality, claiming that those times were marked by indescribable violence.

However, a historical analysis of the epochs in Rwanda shows that no era ever completely achieved gender equality in all aspects; our ancestors established and built upon this throughout all times.

In this history, we aim to reveal the image of gender equality and complementarity in the Rwandan family, both in ancient times and today.

Gender Equality in Decision-Making Levels

Gender equality in decision-making levels has been a practice confronted by Rwanda, where Gihanga Ngomijana founded a kingdom governed by a king, decreeing that for centuries, the king would rule alongside his mother. One being the ruler and the other the queen, both having equal power in making decisions that guide the country.

This is a testament to the high level of gender equality and complementarity in decision-making levels in ancient Rwanda.

Among the rulers of Rwanda over the 870 years (1091-1961), history shows that it was governed by 28 kings and 27 queens.

Not only was there a queen’s role in the highest leadership levels, but there were also women in significant positions, leading army troops, others as chiefs of hills.

Among them, we mention Nyirarunyonga of Gihanga, who led the Abahiza army, Nyanguge za Sagashya, the wife of Cyilima Rugwe who led the Abaliza army, and Mitunga of Rujugira, who led the Abatanyagwa army.

We must not forget some of the women known to have been Chiefs during the reigns of King Musinga and Rudahigwa.

Among them, we speak of Nyirakabuga of Cyigenza of Rwakagara (wife of Musinga, mother of Rwigemera) who managed the Sous-Chefferie of Vumwe within the Chefferie of Gihunya in the Territoire of Kibungo, during the reign of Mutara Rudahigwa.

Gender Equality in Education

Education in Rwanda is not a recent concept, but rather an ancient one, confronted by Rwanda.

School education initially was established by Gihanga around 1120, when he set up the Itorero of Rwanda ( what we can now call civil education ) as a knowledge dissemination school both in Rwanda and the surrounding countries.

Education in the Itorero lasted 10 years for boys and eight years for girls.

There, they were trained in various subjects, including some common courses. This is where they learned medicine, governance, judiciary, agriculture, animal husbandry, weaving, construction, metalwork, household chores, and more.

Women spent eight years there before going to the Rubohero to implement what they learned, while the men continued to receive combat training, after which they would go to defend and fight for the country.

Many say that girls did not attend the Itorero because they were not dressed decently enough, rather they went to Rubohero.

However, history tells us that they did attend the Itorero, but had their own separate programs, never mixing with the boys.

Rubohero was a place where they came together to apply what they learned in the Itorero (Workshop).

Education and upbringing were a principal for Rwandan children, with no one excluded. This is evidenced by their behavior, intelligence, and skills in serving their families and the country in general.

Gender Equality in Property

Due to the abundance of diverse wealth in ancient Rwanda, there was no fierce competition for money, which prevented descendants from fighting over family wealth.

When a girl got married and left her family, she was not concerned about going back to her family to demand inheritance as we see today, because she was already satisfied with what she found in her new home, moving from one set of circumstances to another.

Although the pursuit of wealth from their parents by married girls in other places did not occur, the principle of gender equality for both sexes in property was indirectly maintained.

When a girl went through the traditional doorway ( what we can call a traditional wedding now ), her family would give her a hoe and land to farm on, and also grant her cows and a pasture to graze them. This was her family’s gift to her, not a way of sharing or inheriting.

Another principle in sharing property among siblings of both sexes was that nieces and nephews should be gifted by their uncles.

This was also a way to balance the property of the parents indirectly for both sexes in ancient Rwanda.

Instead of a girl dividing the property she left at her parents’ home and also that of her new home, a principle of social harmony was established that what she would have shared at her parents’ home was given to her children, who would receive it from their maternal grandfather, represented by their uncles, the brothers of her mother.

If you had children, no matter how many, all were gifted by their uncles. They were given cows, pastures

Nyirakigwene, the wife of Nyantabana of Kabare who became the chief of Nduga, is one of those who demonstrated gender equality in decision-making levels during the reign of King Yuhi Musinga.