In the politics of billboards, our women showed their power

With a world record of having women outnumbering men in the lower House of the national legislature, it is largely assumed that efforts at women emancipation in Rwanda are achieving the desired goals. Probably even going beyond expectations.

At 64 per cent, other countries look on with a mixture of awe, and probably, confusion.

Awe because, even in the most aanced countries where women have far better social protections and their rights are not trampled upon as a result of the dictates of tradition, such a feat is yet to be achieved.

Confusion because Rwanda is not that country many would consider a democracy — where the role of parliament as a mechanism for checks and balances on the executive can be freely exercised.

So, it would be taken that such a parliament is for “show.” That it is a farce and playing for the gallery. More or less a form of tokenism, with no substantial attendant power — for the legislature.

However, it is generally acknowledged, even in studies, that women in Rwanda, right from the grassroots, have been enabled to make aances in their circumstances that are not easy to come by in traditional, rural agrarian societies.

Certainly, it is beyond debate that deliberate efforts have been made to uplift the position of women in the Rwandan society. Some now say Rwanda is a country run by women!

Well, the country’s laws, for example, in some instances require that 30 per cent of leadership roles in different sectors be occupied by women. That is quite progressive, and deliberately so.

Social media storm

But then, there is something that got me thinking these last days: That now (in)famous billboard aertising a telecommunication company’s latest promotion for customers, with two beauty queens simultaneously pecking the popular musician King James on both cheeks. It was pulled down because the image illustration “objectified women” and was indecent.

Going by the social media storm that was unleashed both for and against the billboard, the implication is that either the aertisement was too controversial or the act of pulling it down, on instruction from the city authorities, in itself was.

One thing is clear though: An aert that becomes that controversial, whether pulled down or not, will have succeeded in a way. It certainly did draw a lot of attention to what was being promoted. But that is a story for another day.

This single event tells something fundamental about the movement for women emancipation in Rwanda. One, it is obvious that the noises leading to the controversial pulling down of the billboard came mainly from the elitist-feminist women of Kigali.

Force the hand of a big corporate body

That they could force the hand of a big corporate organisation — big business by this country’s standards — is telling. In many economies where big business sponsors candidates to win elections, many in the political class would avoid being seen to go against the interests of business entities.

So, here we have a situation where politics drives business. So, political activism triumphs over corporate power.

It is business that bends over backwards for political and social activists. Yet, in the aanced of modern economies, we see business having many politicians and social activists in their pocket, doing their bidding.

Also, the efforts towards empowering women by placing them in strategic sectors has emboldened them to assert themselves on such occasions when they think their dignity is facing denigration. And, more often than not, they will have their way than ever before.

And this simple action taken by the authorities in leaning on the telecom company or aising them to pull down an aertisement was received negatively by the city authority in Kigali has a bearing on freedom of expression.

In a world where media and aertising empires are more inclined towards entertainment than the serious stuff, such has deep implications. This is because competition in business will always push for controversial aertising gimmicks.

But can the morality watchdogs of society keep pace with the fast-paced changes of the corporate world? Maybe not in the long term. But, for now, the women movement seems to exercise power and leverage.

Frank Kagabo is an Erasmus Mundus graduate student of journalism, media and globalisation at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Swansea University, the UK, specialising in war and conflict reporting. E-mail:

SOURCE: The East African