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story behind the book | kate tuttle

Political lesson from Rwandan women: Lean in

david wilson for the boston globe

As an activist, educator, and philanthropist focusing on women, Swanee Hunt has traveled the world. As US ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997, she had a front-row seat for the genocide in Bosnia (which became the subject of her two previous books). But she had never seen anything like the women of Rwanda.

“I was so taken by the story,” Hunt said. Following the 1994 genocide in which fully 10 percent of the country’s population was killed, she added, “women surged into the breach,” working to bury the dead, find homes for orphaned children, and rebuild the political culture.

In “Rwanda Women Rising,” Hunt collects the voices and stories of dozens of these women. One of the most notable was Aloisea Inyumba, a social worker who became head of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission established after the genocide. Hunt called Inyumba, who died in 2012 in just her mid-40s “a very significant teacher in my life.”

But Inyumba was hardly alone. As the country reeled from heartbreaking devastation, it was the women who “were able to rouse themselves into action,” Hunt said. Talking to these women, she said, “I felt like I was a student. And I was immensely grateful that they would include me in their world, to tell me what their experience had been.”


Women are a powerful agent of change, she said. “When Dean Joe Nye brought me to Harvard’s Kennedy School to create the Women and Public Policy Program,” Hunt said, “it’s because he saw women as an untapped resource for what he called ‘soft power.’ ”

“Heartbroken” following the last presidential election, Hunt said she hoped Americans could learn from Rwandan women. “Let’s all lean forward into this situation,” she said. “There’s so much more that we could be doing.”

Hunt will read at 5:30 p.m. Monday at WorldBoston, the Boston World Affairs Council Branch, held at McDermott, Will & Emery, 28 State St., Boston. Admission $15 for members. $25 for nonmembers. RSVP at the WorldBoston website.


Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.