Long-distance runner and marathon medalist Salome Nyirarukundo is a household name. She has been around for years.
Another is Felicite Rwemarika, who tried to run for the presidency of national football federation in December 2017.
You may probably have also heard of Cathia Uwamahoro who sprung from oblivion to international cricket glory after she set the Guinness World Record of 26 hours batting in net by a woman. It is the longest period.
These names could perhaps be the only women in Rwanda representing the more than 52% portion of Rwanda’s population at the high-table of sports personalities.
The situation is not a laughing matter. It is serious.
It contradicts the fact that Rwanda is touted globally as the darling of women. Officials say they know something must be done – and actually as a matter of priority.
Earlier this month, at a “Forum on Gender Equality in the Rwandan sports movement” held in Nyanza district, voices became louder.
Despite significant efforts being taken, there are big gaps to be filled, as summed up by Emma Carine Uwantege the UN women humanitarian program coordinator, in a conversation.
“Some of the challenges that girls and women face include under-representation, not being given enough opportunities when it comes to sponsorship as well as preparation ahead of the games as well as unequal pay when it comes to prize money,” said Uwantege.
She notes that if there are few more women on boards, in positions of power as decision makers and helping to run sport – it will have a trickledown effect to close sports gender gaps.
The number of girls and women in sports is still low because they remain at home babysitting, breastfeeding or doing housework, Uwantege added.
Various other speakers at the event called for initiatives for women development programs to promote women in sports.
A policy framework on national sports adopted in 2012 by cabinet affirmed: “We will also endeavor to remove all the barriers to the full participation of girls and women and those with physical and/or intellectual impairment.”
As of February 2019, there are 26 national sports federations in Rwanda, according to a database maintained by the Ministry of Sports and Culture.
With the exception of some of the national sport federations such as the Paralympics Association, Football, Athletics, Cycling, basketball and Volleyball, other federations are still in their infancy. For example some yet to obtain official legal status.
According to statistics cited by Amb. Valen Munyabagisha, the chair of the National Olympic and Sports Committee, only 16 percent of women are at level of representative in different sports federations.
However, and listen to this, NONE is a president or chairperson – as all the 26 federation leaders are MEN.
Amb Munyabagisha said it is only in the National Paralympics Committee (NPC) and the National Handball body where they are “trying” – indication that the women there are of no significance to the functioning of these bodies.
“For sponsorship of women games, there is a huge gap. That is why the International Olympic Committee took the courage to increase the percentage of female membership by 25 percent in the last four years,” he added.
Felicite Rwemarika is herself the first vice president of the National Olympic Committee, the umbrella body of various federations. Rwemarika has also been at the helm of local football body FERWAFA as the head of women football.
She is also member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which along with FIFA have recognized her for creation of a national council of women in sports in Rwanda and for devoting her life to helping women and girls in different areas, and particularly sports.
She stood unopposed as an aspirant for Rwanda Football Association (Ferwafa) presidency but did not garner the required 26 votes that would have made her the first female Rwanda football president. The voting bloc was made up entirely of men.
Rwemarika says it all has to start with ‘mindset change’ among top sports leaders who pay no attention to the issue.
“It is very important that we met with the Hon Minister of Sports and Culture. She listens and understands. Having a leader who comprehends is a plus when dealing with a serious issue starting with the root cause,” she added.
Rwemarika pointed out that when you present a strategic idea you are told about budgets constraints, poor performances from women teams – then the closing response is: women have to wait.
“Changing the mindset does not happen in one day,” she said, adding, “It is a process which involves advocacy plus awareness campaigns”.
The Minister of Sports and Culture Esperance Nyirasafari recognizes that there is still need to advocate for not women in leadership roles though significant progress continues taking place.
It seems the entire top echelons of the sports fraternity agree there is a problem.
That’s the easy part.
The question is what is the way forward?