By Taylor Evensen

When I told people that I was going to Rwanda, the most common response I received was: “Is it safe?”

Although it has been eighteen years since the 1994 Tutsi Genocide, today’s perception of Rwanda is clouded by the horrific images of the genocide and the one million lives lost. Having visited the country, I now associate Rwanda with its extremely friendly people, countless volcanoes, and mountain gorillas. The memories of the genocide are still very much present, but forgiveness is stressed rather than vengeance.

Today Rwanda is an extremely progressive country. Plastic bags are illegal, and you can’t talk on your cell phone while driving. It is also the cleanest country in Africa. The last day of every month is a national service day when everyone helps clean.

From the perspective of gender relations, women have gained new freedoms and have played a huge part in Rwanda’s growth. The genocide created a dramatic gender imbalance in Rwanda—the post-genocide population was 60% female. An unexpected result of the massacre was that it forced women to begin taking charge. Before the genocide, women were not even allowed to attend school. Today, 65% of Parliament members are women.

Last March, I visited the Gahaya Links Cooperatives, a female-run handicraft company in the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. I had the great pleasure of meeting Joy Ndungutse, a co-founder of this organization who has helped employ over 4,000 Rwandan women.

Eleven years ago, sisters Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana started Gahaya Links to provide jobs for women who had suffered in the genocide. It began under a tree, with the sisters teaching twenty women to weave “Peace Baskets” in Gitarma, a rural village in Rwanda. Since then, the Gahaya Links Cooperatives has become a $20 million empire.

Gahaya Links became the first Rwandan handcraft export company to benefit from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The AGOA permits Rwandan goods to enter the US market duty-free. Macy’s began selling the Gahaya Links “Peace Baskets” in 2005, a deal that now generates a $300,000-400,000 annual profit.[1] Gahaya Links handicrafts are also sold at Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel.[2] The sisters also recently designed a line of jewelry and handbags for Kate Spade, which is now sold in stores.

Many of the women employed by Gahaya Links lost their relatives and husbands during the genocide; their husbands were either killed, fled the country, or were incarcerated for acts of genocide. Other women endured gross acts of sexual violence and are now suffering from physical injuries and disease.[3] Militiamen used the HIV virus “as a weapon…intending to cause delayed death.”[4] The Ministry for the Family and Promotion of Women officially reports 15,700 rape cases, but this figure is likely closer to 250,000-500,000 based on pregnancy reports.[5] The victims were as young as two, and many women were forced “to kill their own children before or after being raped.”[6] Joy and Janet’s cooperative network provided a way for these women to meet their basic necessities and rebuild their lives after enduring such horrific losses.

When I spoke with Joy, her business acumen was clear, but I was most struck by her unbridled enthusiasm and optimism. With more than fifty operating cooperatives, Gahaya empowers women economically and has been a vehicle for social change in Rwanda. Ephigenia Mukantabana, who lost 65 members of her family in the genocide, is a master weaver at one Gahaya cooperative. She began weaving to support herself. In the cooperative she had to interact with the relatives of her family’s killers and guide them. After weaving with them, Mukantabana became the first Rwandan to “publicly open her heart to the killer of her family and forgive him in open Gacaca court.”[7]

Gahaya’s beautifully woven baskets, home décor, jewelry, and textiles demonstrate the power of entrepreneurship and female solidarity in both combatting poverty and rebuilding a society in the wake of a devastating tragedy. The principles of unity and empowerment that began with Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana’s Peace Baskets in Gitarma have had far-reaching effects on Rwanda’s peace movement.

[1] “Women opens heart to man who slaughtered her family.” CNN. 2008.

[2] “Gahaya Links: Weaving Lasting Peace.” Gahaya Links Limited. 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Sexual Violence and Genocide Against Tutsi Women.” University of Dayton. 2011.

[5] “Sexual Violence used as a Tool of War.” United Nations. 2004.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Ephigenia Mukantabana.” Gahaya Links Limited. 2012.

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