Women and land rights in Rwanda

A recent study by International Alert has explored how Rwanda’s customary law and culture favours men over women with regard to land rights, and called for measures to overcome this discrimination.

The report, entitled Decision-making and joint control rights over land in Rwanda, analyses the obstacles to women’s participation in decision-making concerning jointly held land. It reveals that a combination of customary law and culture are for the root causes of women being overlooked and sidelined.

The study was conducted in the four districts where Alert’s Partnership for Peaceful Rural Transformation (PPRT) project operates. It found that whereas the majority of participants believe in the principle that all household land-related decisions should be taken jointly by the wife and husband, in practice this tends to follow a distinct trend.

Betty Mutesi, Alert’s Country Coordinator in Rwanda said:

“The research found that decisions about daily agricultural management such as use of land, choice of crops, selection of agricultural inputs and methods are joint decisions or usually taken by the female spouse. However, decisions that involve a financial aspect such as sale of crops, use of proceeds from the sale of crops, and lease of land are predominantly taken by the male spouse.”

The research identifies a number of factors that contribute to this inequality. These include the social construction of femininity in Rwanda, which is rooted in ideas that silence and submissiveness being signs of a good wife, and the cultural belief that “the wife comes empty-handed” to her husband’s household and therefore lacks bargaining power. Weak enforcement mechanisms and a lack of knowledge about how to petition for change also diminish women’s voice in decision-making.

Other challenges include informal marital statuses, which exclude women from legal protection, and the threat that they will suffer from gender-based violence (GBV) if they do attempt to claim their rights. There is also a strong traditional belief in sons’ entitlement to family land, which prevents women from having a stake in it.

“We would like to see an end to some, if not all the major obstacles to women’s participation in decision-making structures”, said Mutesi.

“Women should be encouraged to participate in and to join decision-making bodies. Efforts should also be made to repeal the provisions of Article 206 of the civil code which places men at the head of the household and in so doing, codifies customary gender roles.”

The report sets out recommendations for other revisions in law to overcome these entrenched gender inequalities. It also states that women and men should be constructively engaged to transform gender norms, attitudes and practices that perpetuate inequality.

As the research indicates, civil society can play a key role in advocating for both spouses to be joint administrators of the patrimony and raising awareness among couples and communities about the value of women’s work.

Read the report and find out more about our work in Rwanda.