Rwandan social structure evolves

With men the primary victims in the '94 genocide, women have more responsi- bilities now. A new law will give them inheritance rights.

Ancilla Abondibana is not unlike most Rwandans: She's worried about how her banana trees and cassava plants are faring and wonders how she'll manage to raise the four grandchildren left in her care after the country's genocide seven years ago.

But this grandmother is also a legal groundbreaker. She is one of the first women to win a case under a new law that gives Rwandan males and females equal rights to inherit property.

The law would not have come about were it not for the massive upheaval in Rwandan society caused by the horrific 1994 genocide. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in massacres fomented by government extremists.

According to social scientist Aloysia Inyumba, it was the massive change in family makeup that prompted the law. "The target during the genocide was the male population," she says. "We had a large number of widows, we had a large number of girls who survived the genocide. The social structure changed."

In addition to their traditional tasks of caring for children, fetching firewood and cooking, many rural women have also become the main agricultural laborers.

When Mrs. Abondibana's husband died back in 1988, she was unable to inherit his property. So her son gave her a small piece of land on which to live. But tragically, the son was murdered during the genocide. And, "when he died, his wife refused to give me any land," says Abondibana.

She stayed in the house, living off food from her neighbors, but eventually felt intimidated by threats from her daughter-in-law and her male accomplices. "I feared for my life," she said. "I thought I could be killed anytime if I remained in the house."

Conflicts over land in Rwanda - long a factor in one of the world's most densely populated countries - became no less intense after the genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis returned from exile, hoping to recover property they had left behind as far back as 1959. Thousands of Hutus fled the country, for fear of reprisals or justice, leaving land to be quickly claimed by others. And with so many men killed in the genocide, women became the heads of hundreds of thousands of households - 34 percent of them, according to the government.

International aid agencies have found a newly receptive environment for initiatives to meet women's needs and train them in new skills, all aimed at increasing their participation in society and encouraging peace. Women's groups have become key forums both for local activism and decisionmaking. And more women are working in formal employment, although their numbers remain small.

"Traditionally, a woman was not a breadwinner. Now she has had to become one," says Ms. Inyumba, who was minister of gender during the law's drafting process.

Organizations like Haguruka (Stand Up), a women's and children's rights group, were engulfed by hundreds of women asking for legal help after being turfed from their land. Even though the Rwandan Constitution has enshrined equal rights since 1992, the practice on the ground was vastly different.

"The Constitution was not applied," explains Edda Mukabagwiza, executive director of Hagururka. Judges - almost exclusively men - tended to side with cultural norms over constitutional niceties, she says. "The woman had no rights to property because property belonged to men. Only boys had the right to inherit. The most important thing in this new law is the equality between women and men, girl and boy."

Two provisions in the law are key. If a parent divides land while still alive, the law says: "All children, without distinction between girls and boys ... have a right to the partition made by their ascendants." After a parent's death, the law says all children "inherit in equal parts without any discrimination between male and female children."

The law also contains detailed clauses explaining inheritance rules in the event of such instances as the death of a spouse when there are no children, and the rights of so-called "illegitimate" children. Another provision that helped Abondibana's case says a surviving spouse must assist needy parents.

Legal experts say the system is a departure from the laws in most other African countries, which do not allow women the right to inherit. Passing the law was one thing: Implementing it is another. Although some cases like Abondibana's have been heard and won by the female petitioners, such decisions have mainly taken place in the superior courts. It will be tougher to change the attitudes of lower-level judges.

"There are a lot of differences between the law and the decisions that magistrates and local officials are making. This gap needs to be filled," says Jean Marie Kamatali, dean of law at the National University of Rwanda in Butare.

Mr. Kamatali says the government isn't doing enough to promote the new legislation. "Few Rwandans know the content of this law," he says. "You need a lot of sensitization."

"There's going to need to be a huge sensitization campaign, not just for the judges and magistrates, but for the general population as well," agrees Lisa Jones, a protection officer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kigali. Specific administrative regulations, she adds, are needed so that local officials know how to apply its principles.

The law took effect only last November. Inyumba says it will take time for the government's sensitization campaign - which includes radio and TV items, written material and direct presentations to groups of students, youths and women - to have an impact.

She acknowledges that the battle against ingrained attitudes toward women is a tough one. And it's not just men who cling to traditional beliefs.

"Some women, because of the culture, don't believe they have rights," says Mr. Mukabagwiza. "Not all men are against the law. Even in rural areas, some of them understand the principle."

It's a principle that changed Abondibana's life. She won her court case just 15 days after the law took effect, having lost earlier in a lower court.

"My life is better, and I have good expectations that the future will be OK," she says. "I can plant beans and give them to the children to eat."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Rwandan social structure evolves
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today