Rwanda: Leaders must challenge outdated beliefs and give women truly equal rights to land

This blog was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In rural Rwanda, as in most developing countries, owning and controlling land determines whether you are rich or poor. In a country where some 57% of the population live below the poverty line, land is a prime resource.

Having right to own land not only allows you to feed your family, but to be able to secure your wellbeing and have a place in society. While secure land rights may not be a silver bullet for eradicating poverty, they do lay the foundation for access to education, healthcare, sanitation, microfinance and more.

Despite an emphasis on women's inclusion in Rwandan politics, a recent study by International Alert found a distinctive culture of patriarchy in decision-making over land use in the country. Sadly, women with no or insecure land rights have less household bargaining power as well as less ability to access the resources listed above.

Our study found that, on the one hand, decisions about day-to-day agricultural management, such as land use, choice of crops and selection of agricultural inputs were either joint decisions or taken by the wife.

However, decisions regarding money were taken only by men. Men decided how to use profits from the sale of harvests or from the lease and sale of lands. And men also managed bananas and coffee - the more profitable crops - while women managed legumes and potatoes.

One woman lamented that her spouse was not making financial decisions around their land in the way that benefited the family. "The man can sell productions of the household without informing me," she told us.

Meanwhile, women faced domestic violence for doing the same thing. As another woman told us: "A woman can be beaten by her husband when she sells beans to buy salt, without telling [her] husband. This is commonly experienced by women."

Marital status was also problematic. Women in de facto marriages, irrespective of the number of years, were denied any legal protection over land. One man told us that "if a man and woman cohabit 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 to land [as] she is not recognised by the law."

Sadly, the law did not protect widows either. As one woman told us: "I had children with my husband, but after he died, his family took the land from me, saying that I was not legally married to him."

In Rwanda, there is a deeply entrenched cultural belief that "a good wife is patient with her husband's decisions and obeys, even if she disagrees" - one that is reinforced by men, communities and the women themselves. Many of the women we spoke to said they chose to remain quiet regarding land transaction decisions - just to keep the peace.

And while the Rwandan law now provides for equal inheritance rights for women, the prevalent mind-set that sons are more entitled to family land is perpetuating this cycle of inequality.

In a country where 64% of parliamentarians are women, the highest proportion anywhere in the world, the legal and political groundwork for gender equality has been laid. Now, it's time for attitudes to catch up.

We must encourage Rwandans to start looking at women as capable and equal members of the community, possessing the same leadership capabilities as men. We also need to encourage female voices to be heard.

The government must prioritise the revision of all existing laws which place men at the head of the household and thus codifies customary gender roles.

But we also must encourage women and men to transform the gender norms, attitudes and practices that preserve this inequality. We must also prepare men for the changes in laws that grant women more land rights. This could be done through advocacy campaigns led by civil society organisations, to raise awareness that both spouses in 'community of property' regimes can be joint administrators of the patrimony.

The government and indeed civil society organisations could exploit the success of local initiatives such Akagoroba k'ababyeyi parent evening meetings, where mothers come together to discuss social and economic issues. Such interaction will encourage women to share their experiences and gain confidence in defending their rights.

The Rwandan government is also responsible for revising laws that discriminate against those in informal marriages.

Female silence and submissiveness are strong cultural values and part of customary law in Rwanda, and have become the basis for exploitation and discrimination. In a progressive system, this cannot be allowed to continue. It is up to the government and indeed Rwandans themselves to ensure that any aspect of the law, customary or codified, which appears to favour one group of people over another, is properly dealt with.