Assessment of Rwanda’s Gendered Land Rights Informs New Approach

Guest commentary by Anna Knox, Chief of Party, USAID’s LAND project in Rwanda.

Earlier this year, USAID’s LAND project in Rwanda carried out field research to assess women’s land rights in practice. Rwanda has a uniquely progressive legal framework that paves the way for gender equality in land rights. Daughters and sons are entitled to inherit equal shares of their parents’ property. Parents’ gifts to children are to be given without regard to sex. A woman married under the community property regime (the default matrimonial property regime) is entitled to administer the family land when her husband dies. During the 2008-2013 land tenure regularization exercise, couples married under civil law were required to register their land jointly. Rwanda’s constitution also prohibits discrimination based on sex.

Qualitative research carried out in 20 administrative sectors of Rwanda sought to understand not only whether people were complying with laws, but the extent to which attitudes and mindsets are imbued with values of gender equality.

Some of the research’s key findings revealed:

  1. There is widespread knowledge of gendered land rights among Rwandans as a result of extensive sensitization efforts. In fact, the study found there to be much greater awareness of the law in rural communities than was suggested by Kigali-based informants who often perceive awareness to be the key constraint to women securing their land rights.
  2. Daughters are increasingly securing land through inheritance and more often in equal shares with their brothers, a major shift since the implementation of the 1999 law governing succession. Likewise, daughters are now claiming umunani from their parents, traditionally a gift given by parents to their sons at the time of the son’s marriage to start their household. Nevertheless, the size and quality of umunani daughters get is typically inferior to what is given to sons, and some women avoid claiming umunani for fear of causing conflict with their brothers or putting extra burden on their parents, especially given the very small land parcels most families in Rwanda have.
  3. Women married in civil unions not only have legal rights to land held with their husbands, but also exercise greater decision-making power over it than in the past. Nevertheless, control rights mainly extend to the ability to prevent men from unilaterally transferring the land since such transfers require the consent of both spouses. Women continue to lack bargaining power in decisions over land use and management; couples may discuss options together, but typically the man decides.
  4. Women who are in “informal” marriages or consensual unions – including women in polygamous unions – have virtually no claims to the property their partners bring into the union. Rwanda’s laws only recognize monogamous civil unions. Women who are in informal arrangements are typically unable to influence the use or sale of land or remain on that property in the case of abandonment, divorce or separation.
  5. While there is increasing application of gender equality norms, many revealed that this was “because it is the law,” not because they have embraced values of gender equality. Women, and especially young women, often faulted people’s “mindsets” for failures to make greater progress in achieving gender justice when it comes to land rights.

Rwanda is unique among many African countries in that: 1) sensitization on women’s land rights has deeply penetrated the rural sector; and 2) law and authority typically have a major influence on people’s behaviors. While leaders and advocates of gender equality can celebrate major strides in compliance with laws aiming to give women rights to land on par with men, actions do not necessarily mirror beliefs, making progress shallow and potentially fragile.

Influencing beliefs can never be as simple as preaching to people what is in the law. Likewise, gender justice cannot be achieved through a singular focus on sensitizing women and girls. Unless men and boys value gender equality, they will continue to use their relatively greater power to undermine genuine equality in control over assets.

Informed by the research findings, the LAND project will depart from traditional approaches to achieving gender equal property rights and will instead support civil society organizations to carry out awareness raising campaigns that primarily target men and boys. The campaigns will seek to reshape notions of masculinity centered on power and dominance by using messages and role models that foster notions of loving partnerships with women, valuing daughters and providing equally for one’s children, and being proud champions of fairness and equal rights among all human beings.

Read the Rwanda LAND project research report and brief.


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