Why Americans need to de-stigmatize feminism, and why guys should join the cause

Our lumbering Toyota Coaster bounced through the dirt roads of Rinkwavu. Children ran out of their compounds to wave at us mzungus with huge smiles on their faces. The dusty van swerved through the rolling terrain of Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills. Our driver stopped at a building off the side of the road. Behind its doors stood the Komera postsecondary class, a group of young women poised to change their society.

Rwanda suffered a terrible genocide in 1994, with little to no help from other countries. In the 22 years that followed, the African country has gone through an incredible rebirth of dialogue, community, and most importantly, forgiveness. Since three faculty members traveled there four years ago, GFA has offered the opportunity to travel to Rwanda and experience this new culture and feel firsthand the incredible community that exists there. Seven classmates and I took that opportunity last summer.

Our service trip had underlying themes of education and service. We visited a school in the prefecture of Ruribrizi, near the capital, Kigali. We helped build and repaint a school in a remote mountain village called Cyabatanzit [cha-ba-TAN-zee]. We discussed with teacher trainers the importance of student-centered learning. However, a strong focus was supporting the Komera project in Rinkwavu.

Komera is an organization that grants girls and young women in Rwanda the chance to get a higher education and the resources they need to pursue their wildest aspirations. Our school has a Komera club that meets on Friday mornings to talk about the organization’s progress, and to find ways to support the Komera scholars who we sponsor, Olive, Ruth, and Solange. It never occurred to me to join the Komera club before I went, and thus knew little about their world. After traveling to Rwanda and meeting the scholars, I gained a new awareness and respect for Komera and its mission.

Komera means “to be strong, to have courage” in Kinyarwandan, the native language of Rwanda. The organization employs a holistic approach to improving a young girl’s life, as well as her family’s and community’s, by educating and empowering her to shoot for the stars. After hearing about the club for a while, I finally got to see the organization in action last summer.

After a quick stop to drop off donations of clothes, supplies, and soccer equipment, we met the scholars of the postsecondary Komera class. They were ecstatic to meet us, as we were to meet them. I befriended Diana and Hannah, two women in their early twenties. We spoke at length about our age, grade, classes, what we wanted to do when we grew up, and Rwanda itself.

The two scholars amazed me with the high standards and expectations they held for themselves. Diana aspires to become a civil engineer, and both women aim to go to university and apply for high-skilled jobs: opportunities that would likely be out of the picture without Komera. The scholars became powerful with education, and they knew it. I could see in each of them how they were comfortable with themselves, and confident that they could do great things. Knowledge in Rwanda goes a long way.

Their dream jobs were far from what is traditionally expected of girls in rural Rwanda. In poorer, rural parts of Rwanda, girls rarely get a higher education. In fact, less than 3% of women in Rwanda go to university. As Margaret Butler, the founder of Komera, explained, girls are expected to marry at the latest by age 20 and to do housework such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. Hearing how the scholars were shaping their future juxtaposed with the expectations they face from society made me realize Komera’s transformative influence. Its positive atmosphere recognized the potential of every young woman in the program. While public norms and faux-pas might make a young woman uncomfortable talking about her aspirations to become a college professor, Komera’s environment makes sure she pursues that dream with all the support in the world.

After we got to know each other and had lunch, Margaret called everyone inside to watch a TED Talk. Ms. Butler chose “Why We Should All Be Feminists,” given by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie (the author of Purple Hibiscus and Americana). Originally from Nigeria, the author and feminist actually visited GFA a few years ago. After the video, Margaret facilitated a discussion about feminism in Rwanda. She offered examples from a typical Rwandan woman’s daily life, revealing how women were at a disadvantage in rural African society. While men worked and went to university, women stayed home, cooking and cleaning. “Why don’t the men do some cooking once in awhile?” Margaret called out. What blew me away was how the Komera women visibly began to fully appreciate how unfairly they had been treated. Even more moving was how they bonded through that realization as a sisterhood in pursuit of equality. I witnessed them recognize each other as feminists.

And I witnessed myself become one, too.

It would have felt so weird, so unnatural back home to use the word feminist to describe a guy. However, in the Komera community, it felt like there was no other way to be. Their motto for the fun run, “Teach her she can run the world,” inspires and motivates them to be their best selves. After meeting those girls, hearing their aspirations, and realizing the conflicts, prejudices, and general odds stacked against them, you can’t help but root for them. And when you do that, and cheer on their efforts to revolutionize their society, you become a feminist.

In America, the term “feminist” can bring about such a negative connotation that it frequently scares men away from identifying as one. But in Rwanda, in the Komera community, being a feminist is simply supporting progress.

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