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"Feminine" virtues blamed for unequal land rights in Rwanda, research shows

by Anna Pujol-Mazzini | @annapmzn | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 June 2016 17:49 GMT

Female "silence and submissiveness" stop women from taking advantage of equal property laws in Rwanda

By Anna Pujol-Mazzini

LONDON, June 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female "silence and submissiveness" continue to be valued feminine traits in Rwanda, stopping women from taking advantage of equal land and property laws, researchers said.

According to a study by International Alert (IA), the UK-based peacebuilding organization, Rwandan women are also hindered by their own acceptance that men make better leaders and that wives come "empty handed" to marriage.

The IA survey, undertaken in March in four major Rwandan provinces including Ngororero in the West and Ngoma in the East, explored female participation in decisions related to land use.

It found that while the majority of the 210 men and women interviewed reported a belief in principle that household-land related decisions should be shared by wife and husband, this did not play out in practice.

Decisions relating to which crops are grown or farming methods were made by women or jointly with their husbands, respondents reported, while financial decisions including crop sales and spending were the exclusive domain of men.

"An important cultural perception regarding women's social role that impacts her ability to assert her control rights can be summed up as such: 'A good wife is patient with her husband's decisions and obeys, even if she disagrees'," the report said.

"The social construction of femininity plays out as silence and submissiveness, as described by most female participants, who often choose to remain quiet regarding land transaction decisions to keep the peace."

The report said there is also a link between the belief that a 'wife comes empty-handed (with no land) to her husband's household' and that this contributed to the lack of bargaining power held by women over jointly owned land.

"She is perceived as not having contributed to the patrimony, and is therefore considered to have an inferior claim to the land," the researchers found.

The report also pointed out that Article 206 of the Rwandan Civil Code continues to stipulate that men are the head of household, underlining notions of male superiority.

This is despite the introduction of new land laws in 2013 which enshrined gender equality in both land ownership and decision-making.


According to Betty Mutesi, International Alert's Rwanda director, women who make decisions without consulting their husband - or who contest their male partner's decisions - can also face violence.

"Land is the most valuable commodity for many Rwandans, and culturally women were not allowed to inherit," she said.

"So the new law which gave them 50 percent of land ownership made men feel threatened. There was a need to first prepare men so that they accept these changes," she added.

One female respondent quoted in the report said female decision-making can spark domestic violence.

" ... you may disagree with him about some decisions on land and he beats you. Beating is the most common gender-based violence known to women in this area," she said.

The report also highlighted inequalities in inheritance laws that protect married women but result in women in de facto marriages being stripped of land and property after the death of their partner.

A 2015 Demographic and Health Survey reported that around 17 percent of women in Rwanda live in informal unions.

"If a man and a woman co-habit without being legally married, a woman in this situation has no right to the land owned by a man because she is considered a prostitute who cannot claim any right," a male respondent from the Huye district told researchers.

The report also outlined a series of legal reforms, including revision of Article 206, and targeted education programmes aimed at breaking down traditional resistance among both men and women for truly equal decision-making.

"The law has changed but the mind-set is slow," said Mutesi. "There is a political will to make men and women equal but culture is still an issue."

The persistent inequality in land rights is in stark contrast with the Rwandan government's concerted efforts, since the end of the 1994 genocide, to re-build the nation with more women in leadership positions.

A constitutional amendment saw a historic 64 percent of parliamentary seats in the nation won by female candidates - the highest ratio in the world.

Last year, the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index ranked Rwanda the 6th best in the world for women's access to education, health and economic participation. (Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini. Editing by Paola Totaro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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