Women's economic empowerment in post-conflict rural Rwanda
: social justice versus rapid economic development

  • Pascal Niyonkuru

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Over the last two decades, Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) based approach to social justice and economic development, have attracted considerable attention. This is particularly the case in post-conflict situations such as post-genocide Rwanda. At the centre of this debate is the presumption that empowering economically marginalised groups such as rural women, with potential positive implications, will ultimately contribute to social and gender equality, as well as having a positive impact on national economic development (UN 2011). A growing literature examines the successes or failures of specific women’s economic empowerment initiatives. Most of the studies have tended to rely on the use of economic and human development proxies that capture women’s access to resources or agency in measuring the success/failure of WEE initiatives. This approach tends to de-emphasise the complexity of reconciling and measuring the achievement of women’s rights and economic advancement given their engagement in WEE initiatives.
    When considering this from a rural Rwandan perspective, women’s participation in and benefit from economic activities may be influenced by national development policy priorities or existing social inequalities, which are deeply embedded in gender-biased social and cultural attitudes and power structures within informal institutions (norms, values, traditions, and beliefs). These forces may restrict women’s power, agency and access to resources. Moreover, in studies where proxies that capture social norms have been used, consideration has focused on the final outcomes at the household setting, hence omitting the circumstances under which these outcomes have been achieved, in this sense, providing a single-sided explanation.
    This research aimed to critically evaluate the impact of Rwandan progressive gender policy reforms affecting women’s economic empowerment process on rural women in post-conflict Rwanda. This study was based on a conceptualisation which combined Kabeer’s (1999) three-dimensional model of women’s empowerment and the framework of Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) project (USAID 2014) for women’s economic empowerment. In so doing, it examined how economic development approach interacts with the social justice objective in the WEE process, at national, community and household levels.
    Interpretivist analysis based on information collected using qualitative mixed methods, social justice and transformative approaches were employed for this research. The study was divided into three phases. Phase 1 was an intensive study of the legal and policy position within Rwanda. Data were drawn from (1) national legal and policy documents, and (2) semi-structured interviews with Key Policy Informants from various national and local institutions. Phase 2 consisted of focus group discussions with men and women within five rural district communities, who included beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of WEE initiatives. Phase 3 comprised household narratives with rural women beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of WEE initiatives at household level.
    The results demonstrate that: (1) post-conflict gender related legal and policy reforms and target-driven women’s economic empowerment programmes offer opportunities for promoting social justice and inclusive economic growth. However, the effectiveness potential of these initiatives is inhibited by an underlying national economic development, which creates contradictions in the laws, policies and practices in relation to socio-cultural norms, expectations and obligations for women; (2) The success of these initiatives is jeopardised by the fact that the existing gender inequalities, due to the unequal power relations invested in different hierarchical levels in organisations and social settings are not taken into account when designing and implementing these initiatives; (3) gender reforms through the introduction of new laws, policies and programmes, have left women and men in a dilemma between old and modern traditions which undermined the social justice process. This resulted in women seeking to formulate coping and resisting strategies to enable their full engagement in and benefit from income generating activities, which increased security issues for women, such as domestic violence; (4) law and policy development was found to ignore local rural contexts and in so doing undermining the objectives of the laws and policy to transform women’s lives through gender equality rights and women’s economic advancement.
    This multi-layered empirical study is one of the few to examine WEE in post-conflict Rwanda through the lens of the end results or outcomes/impact of women participation in these activities. It has highlighted the close interrelation and competition that exists between social justice and rapid economic development goals in the Rwandan context. Moving beyond the standard assessment of legal and policy frameworks and their subsequent implementation, the study has illustrated the impact of developing and implementing gender policies with a national rapid economic development agenda focus. This approach often disregards underlying socio-cultural influences that are rampant in grassroots real life and the effects that they have on women’s security and their participation in economic empowering initiatives.
    Date of AwardApr 2019
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorHazel Barrett (Supervisor) & Marion MacLellan (Supervisor)


    • Rwanda
    • women’s economic empowerment,
    • gender equality
    • post-conflict
    • social justice
    • transformative actions

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