Over 40% of marriages in Rwanda are not official, limiting women's rights to property and child custody.

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Research conducted by Robin Spencer, 2009

Note: Global Grassroots continues to follow the changes in legal rights policies in Rwanda. We welcome feedback and additional resources to improve the accuracy of this paper.

Following the Rwandan genocide, women made up 70 percent of the population.1 Rwanda relied on the women to pick up the pieces of the broken and traumatized society. In spite of the devastation and destruction, women took this as an opportunity to change the face of Rwanda. Their initiative in the rebuilding has started to reshape the social, cultural and political landscape and revise gender relations.

From the outside, Rwanda looks like a model of women's development. In fact the country has been commended by the United Nations for its leadership efforts in promoting women and gender equality.2 Rwanda's sensitivity to the advancement of gender equality is evident in the fact that in the 2008, Rwanda became the first parliament in the world to hold female majority3 and currently, 41 percent of the country's business are run by women.4 Despite these achievements and advancements women still struggle to ensure their basic legal rights are upheld. Against the backdrop of increased population density and scarcity of land, at the core of the legal rights problem is the issue of land and property rights.

In a country where roughly 90 percent of the population is employed in the agricultural sector, access to land determines survival.5 This has the biggest impact on women who make up 93 percent of Rwanda's farmers6, but are often denied their property rights and so remain trapped under the traditional patriarchy. Although women's property rights seem to be guaranteed by the 1999 Inheritance and Marital Property Law and reinforced by the new constitution and the 2005 Land Law, in reality women struggle to actualize their rights because preliminary requirements restrict the law's protection, customary laws persist, and women are unaware these rights exist.

In 1999, the Inheritance and Marital Property law gave women and their daughters the right to inherit property from their husbands and fathers.7 This law advanced women's legal position, which, until that point was only protected by the 1992 Family Code that formally designated men as the heads of households and only vaguely outlined women's legal position in relation to marriage, divorce, and child custody.8 In 2003, the government made further progress by ratifying the new constitution enhancing gender equality by prohibiting gender-based discrimination and stating a commitment to "ensuring equal rights between Rwandans and between women and men without prejudice to the principles of gender equality."9 Although the Rwandan constitution and the 1999 Inheritance Law protect women's lives and promote gender equality, in practice, the idea of equality is not so clear-cut.

Significant gaps and ambiguities in the policies have diminished the positive impact and progress of this legislation. In an article published in the Journal of Agrarian Change in 2006, Johan Pottier identified the limitations of the law that inhibit the achievement of gender equality.10 The first major limitations is that the law only protects the property rights of women who have legal marriage contracts; according to the Ministry of Gender over 40% of Rwandan marriages are not legalized, which means that many women are denied access to legal protection and property rights.11 Since a Rwandan marriage license is reported to cost the equivalent of 400 US dollars12, and the average annual income is only 370 US dollars13, it is easy to imagine how women who are unaware of the benefits of a legal marriage could be convinced or coerced to marry illegally to avoid the high cost. Consequently they do not qualify for the law's protection.

Another implication is that the law cannot be applied retrospectively.14 This has had a major affect on thousands of widowed and orphaned genocide survivors, who are not protected by the inheritance law, regardless of whether they or their parents were legally married. Furthermore, the law states no definitive explanation for managing the most common inheritance circumstances: widowhood and divorce.

Pottier also analyzes the more recent 2005 Land Law that focuses on land scarcity, population pressure and landlessness, environmental issues, and the shortcomings of customary and statutory laws and regulations.15 Although many scholars believe this law was an opportunity to clear up the gender ambiguities of the 1999 Inheritance law, it only reiterates the 1999 policy.

Although these systems are in place in writing, the protection they provide is elusive in practice. In fact, it seems that even for legitimate marriages, legal protection is not guaranteed. According to a study conducted by the International Development Research Center in 2007, Ritu Verma noted that there was a major contradiction between the government officials' claims that customary laws had been abolished and what is observed in practice.16 Particularly in rural areas, Verma observed customary laws did not only exist, but were practiced and in many cases would override the constitutional laws.

Yet, despite the law's ambiguities and the persistence of customary law, many observational studies and reports have drawn the same conclusion: the main problem is that women are unaware that there are systems in place to protect them.

Project Study: Kind People

Global Grassroots' project, Kind People, in the Ruhango District of Rwanda's southern province, have identified that as a result of the predominance of customary laws, there is gender inequality in the management of property and land. Although women are responsible for the farming and household duties, they have no power over the financial or inheritance decisions. Many husbands withhold the information from their wives and when they die, the widows do not understand their rights to their property and they are vulnerable to being manipulated to sell or even kicked off their own land by their husband's family. In addition, children, especially young girls have no knowledge that they too have property rights; without this knowledge they marry early out of economic necessity.

Even if legal systems protect women's and girls' rights in theory, in practice, without the knowledge of their rights, women remain entrenched in the inequalities of customary laws and men continue to possess the power over the property and decision-making. In many cases, women's economic vulnerability combined with a lack of access to property rights prevent them from being able to escape violent or abusive relations. With the vision to promote legal marriages and to teach men and women to respect each other as equals, the Kind People team will to train 180 couples about the laws that protect all members of the family and teach them about the mutual benefits of legal marriage. By focusing on educating the husbands as well, Kind People, is confronting one of the major source of resistance to gender equality. In addition to this training, the team will create clubs within each umudugudu (neighborhood) to continue to advocate for women's rights. The Kind People team hopes that through education and advocacy they will be able to decrease the number of illegal marriages and in doing so, also decrease the violence that results.

Learn More

It is clear that the legal system in Rwanda is complex and poses many obstacles for women to gain their rights. The Kind People project demonstrates the importance of disseminating legal rights information. Although there needs to be change at both the customary and cultural level within the communities, and reinforcement by the government and legal structure in order for women to be seen as equal, the first step is to educate women of their rights.

1McCrummen, Stephanie. "Women Run the Show In a Recovering Rwanda." The Washington Post 27 Oct. 2008, A01 sec. The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Web. 16 July 2009.
2Umutoni, Christine. "Rwandan Women Parliamentarians Host an International Conference." Rwanda. United Nations Development Programme, 22 Feb. 2007. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
4"Women Rise in Rwanda's Economic Revival." Washingtonpost.com. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
5"Economy: Rwanda." CIA: The World Factbook. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
6Ka Hon Chu, Sandra, and Anne-Marie de Brouwer. "Rwanda Genocide Victims Speak Out." Herizons Magazine. Winter 2009. Web. 01 Sept. 2009. Excerpted from the book The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence © 2009, edited by Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu
7"Gender Equality and Social Institutions in Rwanda." Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). OECD Development Centre. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
8"Rwanda: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices." U.S. Department of State. 23 Feb. 2001. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
9 Powley, Elizabeth. "Case Study: Rwanda: Women Hold Up Half the Parliment." International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2005. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
10Pottier, Johan. "Land Reform for Peace? Rwanda's 2005 Land Law in Context." Journal of Agrarian Change 6.4 (2006): 509-37. EBSCO Host. Web. 24 Aug. 2009
11Verma, Ritu. "Without Land You are Nobody: Critical Dimensions of Women's Access to Land and Relations in Tenure in East Africa." Rep. International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Jan. 2007. Web. 21 Aug. 2009.
12Ruremesha, Jean. "Rwanda: Marriage by Abduction Worries Women's Groups." PeaceWomen Project. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 2003. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
13"Background Note: Rwanda." U.S. Department of State. May 2009. Web. 25 Aug. 2009.
14Pottier, Johan. "Land Reform for Peace? Rwanda's 2005 Land Law in Context." Journal of Agrarian Change 6.4 (2006): 509-37. EBSCO Host. Web. 24 Aug. 2009
16 Ibid.
11Verma, Ritu. "Without Land You are Nobody: Critical Dimensions of Women's Access to Land and Relations in Tenure in East Africa." Rep. International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Jan. 2007. Web. 21 Aug. 2009.

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