Aloisea Inyumba: Politician who played a key role in the rebuilding of Rwanda

She believed the key to Rwanda's reconstruction lay in involving women at the grassroots level

Rwanda's Minister for Gender and Family Promotion, Aloisea Inyumba, played a decisive role in the rebuilding of her country. She was a pioneer in the advancement of women.

Inyumba was first appointed in July 1994, following the genocide of the Tutsi and the civil war. The country's infrastructure was in ruins, the social problems unprecedented. Women comprised 70 per cent of the population; and a 1997 Unicef report estimated that 250,000 women and girls had been raped and were infected with HIV, with 35,000 made pregnant. Over 100,000 children had been separated from their families, orphaned, lost, abducted or abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of women were homeless, had been internally displaced or had lost their husbands.

Inyumba believed the key to reconstruction and peace was to involve women in grassroots community development. She created a national women's movement based on the former administrative structure, with groups run by local women. Under her stewardship – like other ministers her initial salary came in beans and rice – the ministry grew in size and importance and attracted international donors. Mary Robinson, the former UN Commissioner for Human Rights, believed Rwanda developed faster than other countries because women had played such a determining role.

Inyumba grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. The Rwandan government was run by politicians claiming rule for the Hutu majority and who, with Belgian colonial help, had overthrown the Tutsi monarchy. Her father was killed before she was born in the massacres of Tutsi that swept the country; her mother and five children escaped. In 1990, the UNHCR estimated that 900,000 Rwandan refugees were living in neighbouring states; the regime in Kigali refused the right of return.

Inyumba was at Uganda's Makerere University studying social work and social administration when she joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, initially a clandestine group, created in Uganda in 1987. The RPF was dedicated to a return home; cadres in refugee camps encouraged Rwandan youth to enlist in the Ugandan army to receive military training and experience.

On 1 October 1990, the armed wing of the RPF, the new Rwandan Patriotic Army, invaded Rwanda when some 2,000 Rwandans deserted from Uganda's army, taking weapons and supplies. The result was a three-year civil war and massive internal displacements in Rwanda. This initial invasion was a disaster. The Rwandan government army had the benefit of help from the French military.

Inyumba was appointed RPF finance commissioner and organised a covert but successful fund-raising campaign. The RPF created support cells in every Rwandan community in Africa, Europe and North America. She argued that even the poorest could contribute, if only by knitting blankets for RPF soldiers. She talked of these troops as "our children" and persuaded women to give jewellery and men to donate their shoes. She sourced cheap army uniforms in eastern Germany and travelled to Berlin to negotiate the best terms.

In his eulogy at her state funeral, President Paul Kagame, who had been the RPA military commander, said she would have given her life for her country. Tributes came from the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, from the actor Ben Affleck, and Lillian Wong, the UK's first ambassador to Rwanda in 1995. Cindy McCain, the wife of the Republican Presidential candidate John McCain, said Inyumba had changed her life forever.

In 1994, Inyumba spearheaded a national adoption campaign for children orphaned by war and genocide. The UNICEF representative to Rwanda, Noala Skinner, described Inyumba as "an inspiration and full of dignity".

Inyumba served as executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, where she established a programme to explain the benefits of Rwandans working together at local level. She was a senator and for a time was governor of a province, Kigali-Ngali. In 2011, she was reappointed Minister for Gender and Family Promotion.

Her humility, her quiet voice and graceful manner masked a will of iron. When she died, Rwanda had a higher percentage of women parliamentarians than anywhere else and women occupied more than half of senior government posts. One million people had been brought out of poverty, free education was available until the age of 14 and a national health insurance scheme was in place.

Linda Melvern

Aloisea Inyumba, politician: born Uganda 28 December 1964; married Richard Masozera (one son, one daughter); died Kigali 6 December 2012.

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