When I reflect upon my own experiences and life lessons, I think of my mother Jeannette Kagame, who has helped change the women of Africa for the better, starting with me.
As her daughter, both in blood and spirit, the greatest lesson my mother taught me is the truth of what makes someone beautiful. "Beauty, she told me," comes from within. "Everything on the outside, everything the eyes can see, will fade away in time. The beauty that lasts comes from a woman's spirit, her mind, and her soul."
As the first lady of Rwanda, my mother applied this lesson beyond her own family, particularly with her philanthropic work. Her Imbuto Foundation's original mission was to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to help the many widows and orphans who survived the devastating 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Today, it has expanded to help the women and girls of Rwanda seize the opportunity to transform their lives and shape their future.
Imbuto (meaning seed) focuses on planting seeds of greatness. Through scholarship programs and award ceremonies, literacy programs, poverty reduction, and the distribution of empowering technology throughout communities. Imbuto encourages young girls to believe in their abilities as equal citizens, and to demand nothing less than excellence from themselves.
This is particularly important in the context of Rwanda, where, in the aftermath of the horrible genocide of 1994, wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers found themselves picking up the pieces. Women were left in charge of homes and communities, raising the children and working to rebuild their country.
Before, women often retreated to the background, told (with gentle condescension) to sit on the sidelines and wait for the men to sort everything out. After, this was no longer an option.
Rwanda's rebirth now meant that no Rwandan was to be left behind.
Having survived a terrible situation with their dignity intact, women now had a new chance at making their own choices, becoming a strong, powerful force treated with respect.
The prominent role of women in Rwanda today is due to conscious decisions made by the post-genocide leadership, which honors their importance and supports their active participation in all aspects of the nation's development.
Twenty years later, the women of Rwanda now enjoy unparalleled success, particularly compared to those who struggle for recognition and victory worldwide. An impressive 64% of parliamentarians are women--the highest proportion of any parliament in the world. Gender rights are enshrined in the constitution, and a swath of laws have given women the right to inherit land, share the assets of a marriage, and obtain financial credit.
A traditional Kinyarwanda saying defines the Rwandan woman as "umutima wu rugo," which means the heart of the home and nation. It was their compassion, their willingness to forgive the unforgivable, their courage to rebuild, and the strength of their spirit that contributed to the transformation of Rwanda.
This is the inner beauty that my mother told me about.
The story of women in Rwanda has proven that how we empower women contributes to the evolution of modern society. But ultimately, this is about more than one nation. We are a global community, and what happens in one region affects the dynamic of other countries.
There is, of course, much more that needs to be done. Too many women are less than they could be, feeling much less than an empowered human in the eyes of many...including themselves.
As Hillary Clinton said: "Too many women in too many countries speak the same language--of silence. We need to understand that there is no formula for how women should lead their lives. That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family."
Every day we must strive to undo the harm of inequality towards women.
As we stand on the shoulders of giants―those who have come before us, and those who live among us―it's a good to take a moment and reflect on all we have achieved.