Race For Her Rights, Rwandan Cyclist Takes On Sexism

Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu, a 22-year-old cycling champion, strives to be a role model and to inspire women of Rwanda to fight for their independence.

Jeanne D'arc Girubuntu at the UCI Bike Race 2015
Jeanne D'arc Girubuntu at the UCI Bike Race 2015
Julie Kasinski

RWAMAGANA — At the corner of a dusty road, Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu, 22, waits in the yard of her home near Rwamagana, in eastern Rwanda. Her handshake is hesitant and she looks away. Aside from a group of children staring at her in awe, it is almost hard to believe that we are standing in front of Rwanda's cycling champion.

But once she slips on her cycling jersey, the shy young woman is transformed. She puffs out her chest and her gaze turns confident.

"When I first started training in 2012, I was exhausted. I didn't want to go back. But in the end, I love cycling so much. I like winning and being first." It is this competitive spirit that helps her drive biases out of Kenya.

An exceptional racer

While Rwanda ranks fifth on the Global Gender Gap Report and can boast having the most female Parliament in the world (64% women), it still remains a patriarchal society, primarily in rural areas, where a girl's future is in the house. Not outside, let alone on a bike.

Jeanne d'Arc, whose first name is taken from the French historical icon Joan of Arc, is an exception. She is an out-of-the-ordinary racer in a country where the champions of the male cycling team are considered royalty. One of them, Adrian Nyonshuti, star of the documentary Rising From Ashes, was the first cyclist from Rwanda to be selected to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. He was the one who inspired and led the way for Jeanne d'Arc.

She followed his rise and grew to envy the freedom enjoyed by the male cyclists on the "Tour du Rwanda". Without a second thought, she joined the Adrian Niyonshuti Cycling Academy and start training. She became a member of the national team in 2014.

Training with the boys was hard, but it forced me to improve.

But the road was full of obstacles for the young woman. In her village, her love for cycling was not always well-received. "In the beginning, some people in the community told me I had to stop," she said. "Now these same people are cheering for me and telling me to keep riding!"

She also has to deal with loneliness. In training, she is surrounded by boys. In international competitions, she is the only woman cycling for Rwanda: "During the 2015 road world championships in Richmond, in the U.S., I was proud to be the only black woman competing. But cycling is a team sport. I'd like to have other girls by my side, to help and encourage me. Without them, I can't improve."

Richard Mutabazi, director of the Africa Rising Cycling Center, wants to fight Jeanne d'Arc's loneliness. He launched a recruiting campaign in all of Rwanda's provinces, with the goal of creating a women's cycling team. "Boys come to us spontaneously. We have to look for the girls. We still have to educate people to change the way they think, especially in cycling clubs. We want girls to have the same opportunities as boys."

Jeanne D'arc Buruntu in her home town in Rwanda Photo: Julie Kasinski/LE MONDE

The pursuit of equality is paradoxically sought through a difference in treatment. "Families are reluctant when I call them. They wonder who this man is, who wants to recruit their daughter," Mutabazi explains. "We have to train and treat them differently so they feel comfortable. They need to be surrounded by other women." The center plans to recruit female trainers, masseuses, and mechanics, fully devoted to Rwanda's future women's team.

Jeanne d'Arc says this is a mistake. "Training with the boys was hard; they are physically and technically stronger. But it forced me to improve."

Despite the hardships and prejudice, Jeanne d'Arc only has one priority and passion: Cycling. Still, she says that if she ever decides to get married, she will stop racing: "But I'll become a trainer. To help other girls cycle, discover other countries and be more free."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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