Wool is quickly becoming an important market in Rwanda, providing opportunities for some of the most vulnerable women in the country.
The organization Handspun Hope, which operates out of Musanze in Northern Rwanda, teaches women how to make hand-knit goods out of merino and angora wool. This group is the only one in Rwanda to process wool for clothing. The more than 100 women employed there cut, dye, knit, and produce an average of 50 sweaters each month in their busy season.
Rwanda doesn’t have a market for wool goods, so every Handspun Hope product is exported to boutiques in the United States. The organization falls under the project, “Made in Rwanda” which started in 2008 and has boosted Rwanda’s exports by 69%.
Business analyst Collins Mwai believes the women of Handspun Hope are a sign of hope. In an interview with CNN he said, “These women, I think they are an indicator of how every day the Rwandan community has been expanding and bringing in previously ignored sectors, but now they’re finding ways to make an income out of it.”
While Rwanda is currently ranked fifth on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index and has one of the highest rates of female employment at 86%, only 24% of women have their own bank accounts. But Handspun Hope has changed that for many women.
Beatrice Mukanoheri is one of the women who works creating these sweaters. She said of her experience, “I have benefited a lot from my job at Handspun Hope because I joined a very poor lady. I have a new house. I got a loan from the bank and I got running water and electricity.”
In addition, these women also face a smaller wage gap than the U.S., at 88 cents to every man’s dollar. Because of this, legislation passed in 2003 which requires women to be granted at least 30% of decision-making posts and, by 2008, Rwanda was the first country to have a female majority parliament.
Since then, educational enrollment rates at the elementary school level have more than doubled and initiatives to target gender-based violence have been implemented. Rwandan women also receive three months of paid maternity leave, surpassing the U.S. once again in terms of legislation for women.
However, Rwanda still faces serious problems with violence against women. Gender-based violence in Rwanda is one of the highest in all of Africa. One in three Rwandan women have experienced or are experiencing violence at the hands of her male relatives. According to recent surveys, 41% of women have experienced some form of physical violence since age 15 and the percentage rises to 56% for married women.
Despite some resistance from those who follow the old cultural beliefs and notions of masculinity, women in Rwanda are rebuilding a broken country and coming out stronger on the other side.
The wool industry is just one more step towards equality for Rwandan women.
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