30 October 2018

Rwanda: Property Ownership - Rural Women Suffering in Silence as Men Hold Onto Old Traditions

Despite the existence of laws that guarantee equal rights between married couples on property ownership, many women still hardly have a say on family property, with most of them suffering in silence, The New Times has established.

Six years since she got married, Musabyimana (not real name), a resident of Rusatira in Rulindo District, says her husband sells their family property, especially produce and domestic animals, at free will, without consulting her.

The mother of three says her husband has made it a habit to take unilateral decisions over family property but she prefers to remain silent because she fears that seeking a solution can only exacerbate the situation and probably even lead to domestic violence.

"Whenever it is harvest time, he sells our produce and domestic animals and spends all the money on unnecessary things like alcohol. I have gotten used to it and prefer to keep quiet to avoid creating a bigger problem," Musabyimana added.

She cited a recent example when her husband sold about 100 kilogrammes of beans without her knowledge.

"I realised he had sold it in the evening when I came from the garden, I asked him for the money so we could use it to address some family issues but he insisted he had used it all," she recalled.

Such challenges are commonplace in Rwanda and, like Musabyimana, many women would rather keep quiet about it, without even uttering a word to authorities for fear of drawing angry reactions that could end up tearing their families apart.

Fear for public ridicule

But there is another reason that borders on culture.

In Rwandan culture, couples and members of a family are not expected to wash their dirty linen in public.

"Women also fear that when such issues come to light their families could be ridiculed. "You want to expose your family to public ridicule," Musabyimana says.

She adds: "We often keep a lid on such matters because I think it would be exposing our families. I sometimes engage my husband with hope that he will change one day."

"Nonetheless, this is a serious issue because we don't develop economically and our family is rarely happy. I wish one day I will wake up and it's all (the wrangling) gone," she says.

Officials from the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) acknowledge that there are still cases of property-induced conflicts but note that there are ongoing efforts to address such issues.

According to Goretti Kayitesi, an anti-GBV officer at the ministry, MIGEPROF is working closely with other stakeholders to ensure behavioral change among spouses.

"We will keep working with our partners to change public mindset," she told this newspaper. "We will mainly focus on districts which still have high cases of property-related conflicts."

Figures from the police show that, in 2016, at least 142 people, including 78 females, died in the country as a result of domestic violence.

The number of assaults in the same year was recorded at 558 with females the most affected - at 377.

Progressive laws, old practices

According to Annie Kairaba, the director of Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development, while patriarchal legal regimes have long been repealed and replaced with gender sensitive laws and policies, in reality, the situation leave a lot to be desired.

Women and men have equal rights on land and, according to the law, a man cannot sell off family land without the consent of his wife, she noted.

"However, we still see tendencies emanating from the old ways," she said.

She attributed silence on the part of women who are on the receiving end of such injustices to an archaic patriarchal culture that had long silenced women.

In the past, she said, women were not expected to speak in public out of respect for their husbands.

Kairaba said this needs to change but acknowledged that it won't go away easily.

"We need to conduct a lot of awareness campaigns, and to engage the public about the existing gender sensitive laws and policies, and women's rights," she said.

She also stressed the need to empower women economically because if women are economically empowered, gender based violence will naturally reduce.

According to Jean Léonard Sekanyange, the chairperson of Rwanda Civil Society Platform, property wrangles is one of the leading causes of domestic violence.

"It is a problem that has been there for long whereby men can sell off family harvests and domestic animals without consulting their wives and it has been linked to domestic violence, involving assaults and murders," he said.

He added that changing public mindset about the role of women in society and gender equality calls for concerted efforts from all stakeholders.

"We must all pull in the same direction, women and men, if we are to change things," he said.

"Family members should be open to one another and talk to one another over family matters," he said.

Neighbours, he added, "should also always keep an eye on what is going on around them and advise wrangling couples in a timely manner."

"Society must not sit back and watch as families are torn apart by wrangles that should not be there in the first place because the laws are unambiguous about gender equality in Rwanda," he added.

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