Katherine Purvis

Freelance journalist and commissioning editor


Guardian International Development Journalism Competition 2013

Recognising women’s land rights in Rwanda

Agriculture is the predominant economic activity for the majority of people in the global south, and access to land and land tenure remain fundamental resources to a stable and enriched livelihood.

Nowhere is this more apparent than among the women of Rwanda, many of whom were widowed during the genocide or whose husbands were imprisoned for their involvement in the violence.

Yet often women and girls face obstacles to accessing land, despite numerous laws in the Rwandan constitution protecting such rights.

According to a 2011 report by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), women are the heads of nearly a third of households in Kayonza district in eastern Rwanda. The vast majority of these women – 93 per cent – depend on land for their livelihood.

The benefits of owning land are manifold. On the most basic level, women grow crops generating a reliable source of fresh, nutritious food – bananas, sweet potatoes, peas, beans and sorghum being the main produce in Rwanda – for themselves, their families and their neighbours.

“It does make a massive difference when women are able to farm and provide for their children,” says Vivenie Mugunga, who left Rwanda in 1996 due to growing insecurity and later founded the Rwandan Youth Information Community Organisation (rYICO).

“When a man earns money, it’s his money. But when a woman earns money… it’s the family’s money. It’s the same with land. I’ve seen it when women go to collect beans or potatoes [from their land], they come home and they take a little bit and give it to their friends.”

But women’s land tenure also has a larger role to play in society and the vision of a new Rwanda. ACORD International (Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development), based in Nairobi, states that land ownership for women in post-genocide Rwanda is also crucial for cultural identity, political power and participation in the local decision-making process.

In the years following the genocide, Rwanda has made incredible strides towards ending discrimination of any kind

The 1999 Inheritance and Succession Law provides a legal framework for inheritance rights, stating that all legitimate children of the deceased must inherit equally, without any discrimination between male and female children.

The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda, signed in 2003, also sets forth a number of provisions to combat issues of gender inequality. Women and men have equal rights, discrimination based on sex is prohibited and Article 9 stipulates that women must fulfil 30 per cent of decision-making posts

Rwanda is already one of only two countries in the world where men and women are equally represented at the highest level. Following governmental elections in 2008, women hold 56 per cent of the seats in Rwanda’s parliament, eclipsing all Western democracies, except Andorra.

President Paul Kagame has even credited women’s empowerment with some of the advances the country has made in terms of development. Figures from the Rwandan Institute of Statistics (NISR) show that poverty rates fell from 56.7 per cent in 2005/6 to 44.9 per cent in 2010/11 – this is equivalent to one million people being lifted out of poverty in Rwanda in the last eight years.

“The Rwandan Government has made it clear that it will not be able to accomplish all of its development visions by leaving women outside. They have realised that women are the key in changing Rwanda… economically and politically,” explains Mugunga.

In practice, however, the pioneering policies and quotas promulgated by the Rwandan government do not always become a reality and women’s rights to access and control of land are frequently ignored due to social, cultural and religious practices.

Dr Helen Pankhurst, Ambassador for CARE International’s Voices Against Violence Campaign, believes that women’s empowerment is critical to ending poverty but that it is often “jeopardised by factors such as violence against women, pornography and fundamentalist religious views that run counter to ideas around gender equality”.

It is at this stage where many believe dialogue is crucial.

“I think the challenge is trying to convince people that notions of culture and religious practices, and the things that people take to be quite personal and also really important in shaping how they do things, are not themselves static,” says Dr Lata Narayanaswamy, lecturer in International Health and Development at the University of Sheffield.

“Yet what we know for certain, certainly from an anthropological [and] sociological perspective, is that cultures themselves, and even religion, are not themselves static. They change. They are a part of knowledge systems. They are influenced by changes in perceptions of how people engage with certain practices or ideas.”

The UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development has established two projects in Rwanda aimed at increasing community awareness of women’s land rights and encouraging land registration, participation in which has until now been limited due to high levels of illiteracy among women. The projects have found that by employing more diverse methods of sharing information on land tenure, the socio-economic position of women in the country would be enhanced.

But despite the obstacles faced by women in accessing and controlling land, the benefits of women’s land tenure in Rwanda are clear:

“The wealth of a nation is based on how much women are contributing,” says Mugunga. “A country can be rich in money… but when women are not participating, it falls. Any healthy nation is measured by the women’s participation in the community.”





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