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U.S. students Rwanda's best ambassador



Published: Mon, October 23, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.

The Rwandan leader will soon head to Afghanistan to push for women's rights.

YOUNGSTOWN -- Atty. Justine Rukeba Mbabazi spent her vacation time in this city, hoping to educate more people about the need for education, advanced health care and equal rights in her homeland of Rwanda and beyond.

As a civil attorney, Mbabazi works without pay, booking speaking engagements worldwide to help support her six children.

Her experience speaking to public and private groups here has been positive, and her talks with area young people, enlightening, she said.

Her visit to Youngstown is being sponsored by Youngstown State University's Judaic and Holocaust Studies, Diversity Programs, Africana Studies Program and Women's Studies Program.

Mbabazi addressed the need for international diplomacy and support for all people before Sunday's service at First Presbyterian Church on Wick Avenue, downtown, but shied away from her introduction as Dr. Victor Wan-Tatah, YSU's Director of Africana Studies and professor of religious studies, rattled off a laundry list of her accomplishments.

"There are so many great women in history and there are so many great men and women in Rwanda working around the clock," Mbabazi said, but pointed out the remaining work for Rwanda's seven million residents.

"The country is only 12 years old. Because from genocide, we started from scratch," Mbabazi said.

The genocide she was referring to occurred in 1994 during a period of only 100 days, and resulted in the killing of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic group, by extremist members of the country's majority ethnic group, the Hutus.

Mbabazi said 260,000 volunteer judges in Rwanda are hearing genocide cases, but the overall process of trying genocide criminals is lengthy.

Women, though, have taken a larger role in the country's government, she said, noting that 49 percent of the Rwandan Parliament are women, along with 36 percent of the cabinet and 52 percent of the judicial system, including a 37-year-old female chief justice. Mbabazi herself drafted the first legislation against gender-based violence in Rwanda.

She blamed the country's lack of educational achievement for the genocide, but said now, there's a cry for education there. Rwanda has a free primary education and parents are held responsible for children who don't attend, she said.

Another major problem, particularly for Rwandan women, she said, is inadequate health care.

"There are women whose entire bodies have been destroyed because of rape," Mbabazi said, noting that alone has spurred the spread of AIDS.

And health care facilities are woefully inadequate, she said, noting that only about one of three hospitals can even administer X-rays.

Most anything the outside world can do would be of benefit to her nation, she said. "Every small thing helps. Every small thing has a chance to be something great," Mbabazi said

Internship programs bringing American students to Rwanda have been especially successful, she said.

"Because they have seen the ground and worked with the people, they become the best ambassadors we have," she said.

Mbabazi also participated in the Presbyterian service Sunday, and was introduced to three of the church's youth by the Rev. Nick Mager during the church's "Word with Young Believers.

She works with kids their age to provide them with a chance to "be what they want to be when they grow up," she told them.

Mbabazi arrived in the United States Oct. 15, and goes next to Penn State University, followed by three days in Washington, D.C., before heading to Afghanistan where she will work with the first team of female defense lawyers in that country.


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