Words by Ciaran O’Mahony and Bianca Roberts ; Audio by Bianca Roberts and Ciaran O’Mahony
Felicite Rwemarika doesn’t remember Rwanda’s 1959 Revolution, but she knows her family was lucky to survive.
Born amidst a backdrop of bloodshed, Rwemarika was merely one year old when her family fled the country, escaping widespread massacres of Tutsi-minority Rwandans instituted by the new, Hutu Republic.
They eventually found safety in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they weren’t always welcome in their new home.
“It was not an easy situation, living as a refugee,” she says.
“You don’t have any rights; sometimes you used to change names so that you may have school or get better jobs.”
While it was a challenging period, Rwemarika says her family of 15 (comprising 11 girls and two boys) were still able to find good housing and schooling.
“We were lucky that my father was among the few physicians at that time. So we were at least not living in [refugee] camps.
“We were able to live in good houses, medical houses, and at least we were able to pursue our education.”
Tutsi refugees who were forced to flee the violence in Rwanda. Photo: Pascal Guyot via Getty Images.
But like most children, she also yearned to play games and have fun – especially when she watched her father playing football.
Rwemarika was desperate to join in, but she was never allowed. Her father and his friends told her again and again, that girls should not be using their legs to kick a ball.
“They could give my elder brother a ball to play around. And for me, they said, ‘don’t move, you are a girl, you cannot move your legs. Just stay in one place and look around’.
“I grew up with that anxiety, saying that I wish I was born a boy. Maybe [then] I would have such a chance.”
It was a pain that stayed with her, but as it intersected with a glimmer of hope and a spark of innovation, Rwemarika would find herself fervently eyeing an unprecedented goal: to change the face of women’s sport in Rwanda.
Exclusive: Felicite Rwemarika, the refugee who became a pioneer for women’s sport in Rwanda – Bianca Roberts and Ciaran O'Mahony
Losing her husband and discovering her potential as an entrepreneur
After many years in the DRC, Rwemarika moved to Uganda, where she became a nurse. She also married a dentist and started a family of four children.
But as her life abroad began to blossom, Rwanda’s problems only deepened.
With the Hutus in power and the Tutsis marginalised, Tutsi forces from neighbouring countries made several attempts to overthrow the ruling regime.
Each attempt was met with severe massacres and repression of Rwanda’s remaining Tutsi population.
The civil war of 1990 brought the effects of this conflict back to Rwemarika’s doorstep when her husband joined the cause.
“He left me with the young children and was trained for 2 years. Then after 2 years, they decided to go for fighting,” Rwemarika says.
“They went to the bush; I was left there in a military hospital with four children.”
Photo: Getty Images/Rolling Earth
Rwemarika’s distress was heightened by the fact that she could not provide for her children on a nurse’s income alone.
Her brother-in-law advised her to start a business, but she didn’t believe she could do it.
“I’m a nurse,” she recalls thinking. “I don’t know any business.”
Her self-doubt stemmed from prevailing gender norms at the time.
“In our culture, we’re [only] supposed to stay home, look after our children and husbands,” she explains.
But with few alternatives available and many mouths to feed, she gave running a business a try, opening a restaurant that she ran during evenings.
“I would work in the morning at the clinic, then in the afternoon I would go to the restaurant and work all night because people could drink, people could eat all night.
“Sometimes it could be morning when I’m just cleaning my face and going back to work.”
The days were long and she lost plenty of sleep, but the restaurant was a success, redefining her self-perception beyond the tight constraints of the time’s patriarchal, gendered stereotypes.
“I realised I had so much potential … I can be an entrepreneur; I can be inventive; I can be a change-maker.”
Within a short period, the restaurant became so lucrative that Rwemarika was able to quit her nursing job and focus on building up her business full-time.
But, across the border in Rwanda, decades of racial tension were coming to a bloody head.
Return to Rwanda
From April to July 1994, the country’s own government incited the slaughter of at least 800,000 citizens.
Most of the victims were of the Tutsi minority; some were Hutus who protested the violence.
Women’s lives were more likely to be spared, but only so that they could be held as sex slaves during the months of conflict; in the meantime, their husbands and children were slaughtered.
Statistics indicate that between 250,000 to 500,000 Rwandan women were raped during the three months of the genocide.
When Rwemarika returned home, the Rwandan Patriotic Front had finally overthrown the Hutu Republic, ending its genocidal campaign.
In its wake lay a nation in ruins – deeply traumatised, deeply divided, deeply wounded.
A collection of skulls at a cemetery in Rwanda in memory of the genocide. Photo: Alan Gignoux via Getty Images.
Women and girls now comprised 70 per cent of the Rwandan population, most carrying significant trauma.
A Rwandan woman comforts her fellow survivor after the genocide. Photo: Defense News Nigeria Twitter Page.
Reconciliation seemed an impossible task.
And yet it was in the most unlikely of places, between the four walls of Rwemarika’s new business — a beauty salon — that the first signs of collective healing emerged.
As women congregated to have their hair styled, their nails painted, and to reclaim a sense of normalcy, the safe space inspired them to share their grief and, in turn, feel less alone.
“You could see them start crying, all the makeup they put on their face all disappeared,” Rwemarika says.
“[They’d say] I’m alone, all my children were killed, I was raped, now I have HIV.”
The outpouring of grief didn’t detract from the experience; in fact, women consistently returned.
“I realised that women could come and then they meet others and say ‘yeah, for you’re still alive, you didn’t die’.
“They could bring those stories.”
That’s where football came in…
Her salon was making a local impact, but Rwemarika could not shake the notion of a greater, nationwide programme.
“In my heart I wanted to create change. I wanted to do something unique,” she says.
Finally, one evening, it clicked as she sat in front of the television.
“I kept watching movies,” says Rwemarika. “Movies of women playing soccer, women in sports.”
It was an unusual sight for Rwandans at the time.
“With the culture, they could not believe that women can play sports,” she reminisces.
“Then they would say that if it was [with] the ball, then at least they would use their hands — volleyball, basketball, but not football.
“Football is only for men.”
With evidence to the contrary on her screen, Rwemarika began to ponder a new social enterprise: Rwanda’s first female football club.
“Now, since I didn’t get the chance of participating in sports,” Rwemarika thought, “I’m going to use it to motivate other women… not as sports professionally, but as sports for unity.”
Portraits of survivors of the Rwandan Genocide. Photo: United Nations Facebook page
After witnessing the psychological healing within her salon, Rwemarika was determined to foster unity and trauma recovery nation-wide.
“I’m going to fight genocide ideology,” she thought.
Sport, she says, was the only vehicle that could successfully transcend the divisive legacy of the genocide.
“When people come together, when they are in a game, they are now focusing on winning, you see.
“When you are passing the ball, you don’t refuse to pass the ball because someone is from a certain ethnic group.
“You have to pass the ball because you want to win, and that brings unity together… that mentality of fighting for each other to win also grows in the daily living.”
However, Rwemarika’s vision was not an easy sell, initially mocked and rejected at every turn.
“They would say this woman is crazy. Maybe she’s traumatised because of genocide.”
Nonetheless, Rwemarika’s belief remained unshakable and after two years of nationwide appeals, she had recruited thirty young girls from Rwanda’s most disadvantaged locales.
Using revenue from her salon, she provided coaching, transport, football equipment and anything else needed – to two teams of 15 girls.
Rwandan girls take to the field. Photo: AKWOS Facebook Page
“I realised there was very [great] potential. I heard that the children liked it,” says Rwemarika.
She channelled so much revenue from her salon into her new, charitable enterprise that the business collapsed.
But by then, her new, powerful enterprise was off the ground, and about to make history.
She established a new Non Government Organisation (NGO), called the Association of Kigali Women in Sports (AKWOS), in 2003.
AKWOS takes Rwanda by storm
As Chair of her NGO, Rwemarika approached the Minister of Gender and the Minister of Health, urging them to support AKWOS’ efforts to promote women’s sports and gender equality.
“We are going to use sport as a platform,” she told them.
“Then you’re going to mobilise the community during the ‘me time’, during the resting time, to pass over the message of gender equality.”
Rwemarika’s appeal was aptly timed, with Rwanda having just ratified a new constitution on May 6, 2003 which enshrined equal rights between men and women, as well as Rwandans rights to good health and public education.
Both Ministers obliged, with AKWOS’ activities in the community a first sign that the egalitarian constitution was coming to life in real time.
Professor Holly Thorpe, a leading sports sociologist from the University of Waikato, says that Rwemarika’s multi-faceted approach is consistent with that of the world’s most successful “sport for social change” programs.
“Sport has an enormous propensity to propel women and girls empowerment,” she says.
“It teaches women and girls the value of teamwork, self-reliance and resilience, and it has a multiplier effect on health and education and leadership.”
However, to deliver sustainable change, Thorpe stresses that policymakers must not only support such initiatives, but consistently implement complementary, macro-level policies to tackle “the broader structures that often marginalise, trivialise and make women’s lives very, very difficult.”
“So if we do see more [women] … in leadership roles in a society, whether it’s in education or governance in the workplace, then women’s and girls participation in sport is probably going to be seen as another extension of that kind of participation in social life.”
The partnership between the Rwandan government and AKWOS, in fact, was case in point.
As the Rwandan government went to task fulfilling its new constitution’s mandate of at least 30 per cent female representation in parliament, Rwemarika was provided funding for food and transport in order to spread the message of equality on the ground.
“People would come in great number[s], even old men would come with their sister for the first time to see a woman kicking the ball,” Rwemarika says.
“By the time I left [each] province, they would all start their own teams because they enjoyed [it so much].”
Felicite Rwemarika speaks at the Eastern Province, Ngoma District, Rukumberi Sector. Photo: AKWOS Facebook page.
Word even reached Europe, with Dutch philanthropic foundation Women Win deciding to lend its support, subsidising AKWOS training programmes for 24 women across Rwanda, so they could independently run their own workshops in their respective provinces.
By 2005, all of these women had established district-level and provincial football tournaments for girls.
And therein, according to Rwemarika, lies the ultimate power of her initiative.
“You start something, then you pass it on to someone so that the idea can never fade.”
Life-changing effect for traumatised girls
Grace Nyinawumunutu is one of the greatest success stories to come out of these tournaments.
Left an orphan by the genocide, Nyinawumunutu says it was not easy to survive.
“[After the genocide] all of the time I needed to stay alone, to be alone.”
But sport, in particular football, gave her a renewed sense of purpose.
“Sport gave me happiness. After that period of genocide, if there is no sport, I cannot be alive at that time.”
Nyinawumuntu was one of the first girls recruited by AKWOS in 2003.
As she took to the pitch as a centre-back in AKWOS’ first women’s team, she discovered a drive and sense of spirit that transcended the trauma of the past.
“Sport helped me so much because I have [been] in the bad situation of losing my parents. [The] bad situation of losing my brother,” says Nyinauwmuntu.
“But after joining the team of Felicite, [that] is the time I started to [be] having happiness from the team.
“When you go to do sport, even if you have different problem[s], you live on the pitch where you practice the sport.”
Grace Nyinawumuntu (Centre Left) with Felicite Rwemarika (Centre Right). Photo: AKWOS Facebook page.
And it was due to Rwemarika’s initiative that Nyinawumuntu had a chance at making her passion a legitimate career.
“Only a few people like Felicite could encourage me. Others [were] telling me you
will not get a job, you will be like a man, you can’t give birth, you can’t have a husband.”
Nyinawumuntu went on to play for the Rwandan women’s national team, before a knee injury would tragically cost her a career as a player.
Nonetheless, in 2004, she became Rwanda’s first ever female football referee, eventually refereeing the men’s first division games.
“I tried to do my best because I need to show the society that I can do better than the men… to be a good role model [for] other women as a support I need to give our country,” Nyinawumuntu says.
“So all the many women would be motivated to be like Grace.”
She would also become Rwanda’s first female football coach during Rwemarika’s remarkable expansion of women’s football.
As teams were forming throughout the country, and enthusiasm was growing, Rwemarika knew that it was time for women’s football to become professional.
A group of girls play football in Rwanda. Photo: AKWOS Facebook page.
In 2007, she led the establishment of a women’s football commission and became its first President.
She also joined the Rwanda’s national football federation, amid some resistance from established members.
“They did not want me to enter the federation,” Rwemarika recalls.
“But in 2007, I was able to enter the federation and from then [using FIFA funding] we started the national champions league.”
The 16-team league continues to grow in popularity, as does the level of competition.
So much so, that by 2017, a second division was created, with teams fiercely battling for promotion and survival at the top level.
The league also gave Grace Nyinawumuntu a platform to become Rwanda’s first woman professional coach as the manager of AS Kigali, the Rwandan capital’s premiere-league men’s team, where she led them to nine consecutive league titles.
Nyinawumuntu’s coaching achievements recently earned her the position of Technical Director for a new academy run by the esteemed Paris Saint Germain Football Club.
“[Nyinawumuntu’s story] will be a motivation for people to see,” says Rwemarika.
“This girl was an orphan, but now she’s doing great. She has constructed her own house, she has her own car.”
Rwemarika emphasises that AKWOS has moulded more than just great athletes and coaches; its initiatives have given participants the means and the self-confidence to succeed in a wide range of careers.
“Some didn’t have school fees, but because they are great players, they were paid [through scholarships], they were catered for, and now they have graduated.
“Some are lawyers, some are business people.”
“Women can do it”
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (2016) also ranked Rwanda 5th in the world for bridging the gender gap across health, education, economy and politics.
Organisations like AKWOS have played an important role in fostering awareness around these issues. They tackle many of them through “theme” football tournaments, which involve competitive football matches, followed by training and workshops on key issues.
These have included open discussions between men and women on diverse topics such as women’s rights, economic empowerment, the genocide, health issues and teenage pregnancies.
Spreading the message of gender rights to men and women throughout Rwanda. Photo: AKWOS Twitter.
Building awareness in this manner, from the grassroots up, is crucial to a sports program’s long-term social impact, says Professor Thorpe.
“Local context really matters,” she says. “[In] different communities, different parts of the world, girls and women face very different challenges.”
“Programs that are actually set up from the grassroots by girls and women, and community leaders in these communities themselves. This is often where we see much more sustainable approaches where they work with the community on issues that are facing girls and women.”
“At least there has been I can say about 80% of mindsets changed [about women’s role in society],” according to Rwemarika.
“So people have accepted. Of course it can’t be 100%, but at least there’s some improvement.”
Felicite Rwemarika speaks at an AKWOS workshop. Photo: AKWOS Twitter Page.
As gender equality continues to progress in Rwanda, Rwemarika sees a very different country from the one her family escaped.
“I think that we have really achieved a lot and I’m happy that it took me almost 20 years to reach this,” she says.
“I’m happy that at least I’m able to see people uniting because of sports, I’m happy to start women gaining their confidence.
“Sports is not just [running] after the ball. No, no, no.
“There’s economic empowerment. There’s a lot of advantages also for health, for yourself, for being healthy.”
Spearheading such radical change was not always easy, but her struggles were not in vain.
“I had a lot of issues. I had a lot of constraints.
“I would cry at night; people were not feeling my passion.
“Who has told me to do these things? Why am I suffering like this?” she used to wonder.
“I was given so many names. They were ‘crazy woman’, they were ‘woman who is, you know, ‘I don’t know, anything!’”
But now, against all odds, Rwemarika stands proud as an award-winning member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), President of the Rwanda Women and Sports Commission and the Chair of AKWOS.
Felicite Rwemarika (fourth from left) with fellow members of the Rwanda National Olympic and Sports Committee (RNOSC). Photo: RNOSC Twitter.
People from all over the world are constantly seeking her advice on matters of sport for social change.
“Now, I no longer speak so much. Instead, they come to me for advice. I no longer go knocking to everybody and say ‘I want women to play, it’s their right’.”
“They have realised that women have some potential. Women can do it.”
She hopes that many more women will now have the confidence and determination to chase their dreams.
“Once you have a taste, once you have a vision, once you’re focused, you should never give up.
“You should be determined, and then you [will] see things happening.”
Felicite Rwemarika, Chair of AKWOS, has overseen a broader re-imagining of women’s role and capabilities. It was not an easy task, but her struggles were not in vain. Photo: Felicite Rwemarika Facebook page.