A recent report from Rwanda’s Department of Lands and Mapping found that women, either individually or jointly, own most of the registered plots of land in the capital, Kigali.
The Deputy Registrar of Land Titles, Grace Nishimwe, was quoted by local media as saying, "This shows the changes that have been implemented by [the] national gender mainstreaming program. Previously, land titles were registered in the husband's names alone, and it was forbidden for a woman to own a plot of land. We women applaud such great initiatives that make us feel worthy."
Certainly, Rwanda has made great strides. Beginning in 2007, the government of Rwanda embarked on the Land Tenure Regularization Program (LTRP) – a national land registration program – which set out to title every plot of land in the country in order to 1) decrease gender inequality in access to land; 2) optimize land use and economic growth through property ownership and security; and 3) provide a clear institutional legal framework for land ownership. By 2013, approximately 99% of individually-held land in the country had been registered.
Still, more can be done.
Rural women remain particularly vulnerable. Customary law often undermines their right to inherit land. Women are often pressured to relinquish their right to land to their brothers. When women do assert their rights to land, they face the traditional restrictions on women’s access to dispute resolution institutions.
This is particularly troubling given Rwanda’s high population, land scarcity and consequent high rate of conflict over land. Further, the country’s legal framework could better protect the rights of women to land, particularly women in polygamous and unofficial unions, who are not protected under the current legal framework.
More secure rights for Rwanda’s women are critical not just for women’s economic empowerment, but also to help Rwanda achieve a host of development goals. Rwanda Vision 2020, the country’s plan for economic development, is based on two pillars, one of which is the transformation of agriculture into a productive, high value, market-oriented sector.
This cannot be achieved without better supporting and protecting women’s land rights.
Research shows that when women have resources like land, they are more likely than men to use those resources to benefit their children and help their family climb out of poverty.
According to a USAID study in Nicaragua and Honduras, women with land rights contribute a greater proportion of income to the household than men. Children in households with women landowners had higher levels of educational attainment.
Likewise, a study in Nepal found that malnutrition is reduced by half when the mother owns land. A similar study in Ghana found that households in which women own land spend more of their income on food than households in which women are not landowners.
The reasons land ownership can transform women and their families are simple. Land is power. And having control over land gives a woman greater stature, gives her more of a say in making important family and community decisions, makes her less likely to tolerate abuse, and makes her more likely to take good care of the land she farms.
Landesa is currently partnering with the Government of Rwanda, Search for Common Ground, Haguruka, Tetra Tech, and the National Women’s Council on a project supported by USAID to create a network of Community Resource Persons to address land disputes in a gender sensitive way in their communities and improve the legal, policy, and institutional framework for land dispute management.
Closing the gap between the country’s good laws and the day-to-day reality for women in the countryside, which is currently governed by a web of customs and traditions that leave women vulnerable, would go a long way towards unleashing rural women’s potential for the benefit of all Rwandans.
Jennifer Duncan is Africa Program Director for Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men.
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Read more about Landesa’s work in Rwanda here.