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ODU Professor, Students Travel to Rwanda for Conference on Gender

Old Dominion University's women's studies department sponsored Rwanda's first academic research conference on gender in the city of Kigali March 11- 12. The ODU delegation, which included department chair Jennifer Fish and graduate students Erika Frydenlund, Savannah Eck and Sabine Hirschauer, will remain in the country until March 22, focusing on issues of gender equality.

ODU recently launched a joint initiative with the National Kigali Institute of Education and held the conference in conjunction with the institute's Centre for Gender, Culture and Development. The event brought together students, parliamentarians, NGO leaders and academics to promote research on gender across institutions.

During the conference, the ODU students presented research papers, ranging from a comparative analysis of Rwandan and South African women in post-conflict reconstruction, to modeling maternal health to sexual violence as a systemic tool of warfare in Africa's Great Lakes Region.

The group is working with Anita Clair Fellman, former ODU faculty member and women's studies chair, who earned a Fulbright Specialist Award to build the capacity of Rwanda's first academic program on gender studies. "We want people here to talk to one another to see how they can enhance each other's work," said Fellman.

In Rwanda, women hold a third of all cabinet positions in the country, including foreign minister, education minister, Supreme Court chief and police commissioner general. In 2008, Rwanda's parliament became the first in the world where women claim the majority - 56 percent, including the speaker's chair.

In the 1994 genocide, more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days of highly organized violence in Rwanda. With a population that was about 70 percent female after the genocide, the government adopted ambitious policies to help women economically and politically, including a new constitution in 2003 requiring that at least 30 percent of all parliamentary and cabinet seats go to women. The remaining 26 percent of the women in parliament were indirectly elected.

The rise of women is in large part due to the country's banishment of archaic patriarchal laws that are still enforced in many African societies, such as those that prevent women from inheriting land. The legislature has passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, while a committee is now combing through the legal code to purge it of discriminatory laws.

Fish hopes this conference will result in a series of research projects and partnerships between the two institutions. "By understanding how a nation that faced such severe conflict and violence can draw upon women's leadership to rebuild society in the aftermath of genocide, Rwanda provides an important model of the interconnections among gender, development and peace-building," she said.

"We hope this will encourage a wider understanding of women's contributions to national development and international peace."

This article was posted on: March 21, 2011

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