Ancilla Abondibana is not unlike most Rwandans: She's worried about how her banana trees and cassava plants are faring and wonders how she'll manage to raise the four grandchildren left in her care after the country's genocide seven years ago.
But this grandmother is also a legal groundbreaker. She is one of the first women to win a case under a new law that gives Rwandan males and females equal rights to inherit property.
The law would not have come about were it not for the massive upheaval in Rwandan society caused by the horrific 1994 genocide. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in massacres fomented by government extremists.
According to social scientist Aloysia Inyumba, it was the massive change in family makeup that prompted the law. "The target during the genocide was the male population," she says. "We had a large number of widows, we had a large number of girls who survived the genocide. The social structure changed."
In addition to their traditional tasks of caring for children, fetching firewood and cooking, many rural women have also become the main agricultural laborers.
When Mrs. Abondibana's husband died back in 1988, she was unable to inherit his property. So her son gave her a small piece of land on which to live. But tragically, the son was murdered during the genocide. And, "when he died, his wife refused to give me any land," says Abondibana.
She stayed in the house, living off food from her neighbors, but eventually felt intimidated by threats from her daughter-in-law and her male accomplices. "I feared for my life," she said. "I thought I could be killed anytime if I remained in the house."
Conflicts over land in Rwanda - long a factor in one of the world's most densely populated countries - became no less intense after the genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis returned from exile, hoping to recover property they had left behind as far back as 1959. Thousands of Hutus fled the country, for fear of reprisals or justice, leaving land to be quickly claimed by others. And with so many men killed in the genocide, women became the heads of hundreds of thousands of households - 34 percent of them, according to the government.
International aid agencies have found a newly receptive environment for initiatives to meet women's needs and train them in new skills, all aimed at increasing their participation in society and encouraging peace. Women's groups have become key forums both for local activism and decisionmaking. And more women are working in formal employment, although their numbers remain small.
"Traditionally, a woman was not a breadwinner. Now she has had to become one," says Ms. Inyumba, who was minister of gender during the law's drafting process.
Organizations like Haguruka (Stand Up), a women's and children's rights group, were engulfed by hundreds of women asking for legal help after being turfed from their land. Even though the Rwandan Constitution has enshrined equal rights since 1992, the practice on the ground was vastly different.
"The Constitution was not applied," explains Edda Mukabagwiza, executive director of Hagururka. …