Rwanda showed us how to build a ‘care’ infrastructure – and the pandemic shows that we need it

I really like the term, “care infrastructure”, that is part of the discussions about a huge US infrastructure plan. That is because it instantly reminds me of the wide-ranging discussions that have taken place in Africa over the years as women stepped up to fill the holes in their society.

I read so many stories over the years, of women who took in their orphaned grandchildren and women who looked after the people suffering from HIV/AIDS in their communities. Those women were helping to build something bigger than themselves – a ‘care’ infrastructure..

And they began to develop a vocabulary to describe it. That is not as easy as describing our physical infrastructure – sewage pipes or water pipes or water treatment plants or dams. We have tended to think of ‘care’ in terms of buildings – day care centres and seniors homes, for example. But I suspect the pandemic has shown us it is much more than that. 

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It is the neighbour who picks up groceries for you when you are isolating; the person who helps you navigate the internet to make a vaccine appointment; the consumers who sign up to buy food directly from your farm; the volunteers who run the food bank; the school bus drivers who use their buses to deliver food to the porches of students’ homes.

As it has been for so long in Africa, this ‘care’ infrastructure is likely to be much more virtual than physical. And, in Africa, it is overwhelmingly female.

“Claiming physical space is a common organizing strategy for disenfranchised groups, but especially for women, it is a transformative process towards claiming public roles,” says a wonderful report called Our Spaces published by the Huairou Commission. 

“By organizing, we refer here to the more conscious efforts to participate in (or resist) public decisions that affect women’s lives, rather than to women’s everyday arrangements to share the burdens of their work and networking behind the scene to organize the social affairs in their communities. The boundary between the two is, however, rather blurred.”

While women have always shared work, exchanged information, supported each other, shaped their environments and managed a community’s social and economic relations, the report says, many researchers haven’t grasped the nature of their contributions. Some researchers have called it ‘organized anarchy’ because they didn’t see hierarchical structure they recognized.

For many women, they can meet with other women only when they get water from the river or berries from the forest. Many years ago, Marilyn Waring noted that while men in Africa thought of development in terms of money, women thought of it in terms of time, and she urged development professionals to look at whether projects saved women’s time vs enriching the community’s men. Similarly, it took a long time for us to widen our analysis of wood gathering beyond its impact on forests to look at the risks women faced while doing so, or to look at how women’s menstruation affected whether girls attended school.

Once women in Africa gained much more political power, as in Rwanda, the nature of governmental priorities changed, to building and supporting that kind of care infrastructure even as they physically rebuilt.

The 2010 Our Spaces report looked at a diverse set of case studies of that kind of care infrastructure, in places as diverse as Nicaragua, Jamaica, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Turkey, India, Germany, Czech Republic, Kenya, Canada and the USA. All were owned and run grassroots women who thus had full control over their work, the report stressed.

All the groups were created to meet ‘a common practical need or concern’ – childcare for working mothers in Turkey and Kenya, a healing center for rape and AIDS victims in Uganda, an information center for women farmers in Nicaragua, a communal living room for mothers in Germany and the Czech Republic, a base for savings groups as in Nepal, a community health pharmacy in the Philippines, a center to deal with environmental and public health issues as in India, a shelter for the indigenous women in Canada, a support center for women construction workers in Jamaica, and a disaster recovery center in Sri Lanka. 

But then, as new needs emerged, they added new activities, functions, partnerships and rooms over time. The Mother Centers in Germany started as a drop in place for mothers but added childcare, a food cooperative and income generation activities. In Kenya, as well as child care, the women started providing home-based care to people with AIDS and their children. The spaces helped women escape social isolation, gave them a place to work as public citizens, and formalized their leadership in the community, the report concluded.

The Huairou Commission itself was a reflection of ‘taking space’. Its name came from the district in Beijing where a grassroots tent was set up for women to meet informally during the 1995 Women’s Conference. It had organized an exhibition during the UN Habitat Conference in Istanbul the next year, providing an alternative to the official “Best Practices” exhibition. Along with their exhibit, they offered a temporary mother’s centre and organized child care for the first time at such a meeting. The Commission has continued to document ‘best practices’ of grassroots women ever since.

One example was the Rwanda Women Network and the Polyclinic of Hope, which emerged in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. “Families, homes and infrastructure were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Those who could escape were relocated, and many were left infected with HIV/AIDS. Rwanda was left with large numbers of widows and orphans, who had suffered the worst violence ranging from rape, torture and mutilation, causing deeply damaging physical and psychological effects on the women and children.”

Even as the 2010 report was being written, “trauma and stress are still visible due to uncertain housing and living conditions, and increased caregiving roles without employment or financial means. This increased burden often passes unacknowledged and therefore is without support. Re-inventing families in post-genocide Rwanda is critical.”

The work done by women in caring for children and each other proved vital in making sure their voice became influential women in Rwandan politics and governance. Swanee Hunt told their story in Rwandan Women Rising, published in 2017.

“Because most of those killed were men and because many male perpetrators fled to neighboring nations, 70 percent of Rwanda’s post-genocide population was female. Faced with ensuring their families’ very survival, women stepped up,” she wrote in Inclusive Security. “Mothers took in orphaned children and organized support groups for widows. Women moved from cleaning buildings to reconstructing them. They farmed and started businesses. Throughout the country, they created stability in the aftermath of unspeakable violence.”

Aloisea Inyumba, executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, devised a “new five-tiered system of local to national women’s councils, addressing key issues such as health, education, and security” which proved crucial when Rwanda’s new constitution, approved by a 2003 referendum, established a 30% quota for women throughout government.

Women moved from local councils up through the system and into the 30% of parliamentary seats reserved for women, and soon began running against men for the non-reserved seats. Today, Rwanda’s parliament leads the world in women’s representation in governance, at 61%.

Female leaders became a model for reconciliation. “Women whose families had been slaughtered [were] sitting next to another woman going every day to deliver food to a husband in prison because he was genocidaire—and they’re forming a women’s caucus in the parliament,” Hunt said. The Rwandan Gacaca courts—community-run justice systems that tried some two million genocide perpetrators—also had strong female leadership.

“Despite concerns about its uneven transition to democracy, Rwanda is acknowledged by many—two decades after the genocide—as one of the most stable nations in Africa, remarkably corruption-free,” Ambassador Hunt wrote. “In only ten years, life expectancy has risen from 48 to 58 years. Deaths of children under five have been cut in half. A compulsory education program has put boys and girls in primary and secondary schools in equal numbers. Women can now own and inherit property and are active leaders in all sectors of the nation, including business. National mandates and programs are reducing violence, including violence against women.”

There has been discussion – though not nearly as much as I would have thought – of what happens to the public agenda when women have equal representation to men. The picture it gives of Rwanda is a mixed one and seems to depend at least in part on researchers’ perspectives.

A comparative study of the effects of womens’ political participation in Spain, Rwanda and South Africa done in 2020 observed that Rwandan women ‘today enjoy inalienable rights which women in many other countries can only dream of.” The study concluded that women at the top of management and in politics and governance “does lead to a real improvement in the rights and lifestyles of the rest of the women, and a substantial improvement of the country as a whole.”

One of the women who has helped shape Rwanda, pediatrician Agnes Binagwaho, who served as Minister of Health 2011-16 noted the specific achievements that she attributed to having so many women in government at such high levels. They enhance the whole society around them, she said, because women’s style of leadership is more inclusive, more caring, and more sensitive to children and family needs.

In many ways, I think, Rwanda – like the Nordic countries which also have high levels of womens’ representation – offers us a clear demonstration of how to build and nurture a ‘care’ infrastructure. Now, post-pandemic, perhaps we will have a chance to see if we, too, can build one.


How women are revolutionizing Rwanda. TED Talk, December 2019

Our Spaces. Ayse Yonder and Marnie Tamaki. Huairou Commission.

Rwanda’s women as leaders, not victims. Harvard Gazette, Jun. 29, 2017

How Women Rebuilt Rwanda. Inclusive Security.