Women's Land Access in Post-Conflict Rwanda: Bridging the Gap between Customary Land Law and Pending Land Legislation

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In recent years, numerous scholars have acknowledged that the experiences of women in post-conflict societies are unlike those of men. This article addresses the situation of women in one post-conflict society-Rwanda. In particular, it addresses Rwandan women's problems in gaining access to land for residential and agricultural purposes following the war of 1990-1994. During the war, hundreds of thousands of women were forced to flee their communities. After the war, many women returned to their own and other communities, without husbands or male relatives, only to discover that the land that they hoped to claim was occupied by other refugees. Without husbands or male relatives to help them regain their land or to acquire new land, Rwandan women had few options but to struggle for land rights on their own.1 Similar to women in many other post-conflict societies, they were compelled to maneuver within a system of land law that had been greatly altered by war.

Section II of this article covers the effects of Rwanda's civil war on women. Section III discusses Rwanda's legal system, including the history and current state of customary land law and modern land legislation. This section emphasizes women's rights to land under customary land law and the pending land legislation. Section IV argues that a gap exists between the customary and modern legal systems, creating both land access opportunities and constraints for women. Section V presents the results of my field research on women's presumed land rights and their actual land access, both of which currently exist under conditions of legal uncertainty. This section examines, through specific case studies, how women first assess their status within the complex hierarchy of rural land rights, and thereafter, how they work within the constraints and opportunities presented by their immediate circumstances in order to retain or to gain control over land. Section VI discusses the case studies as a group in order to demonstrate the patterns according to which Rwandan women are creatively bridging the gap between a rapidly evolving system of customary land law and a modern system of land law in-the-making. Finally, section VII offers several conclusions regarding my research findings and suggests that government officials should work to achieve land policy and legislation that specifies and guarantees women's land rights in both theory and practice.

II. The Effects of Rwanda's Civil War on Women

The tiny central African country of Rwanda2 was a centralized kingdom from the fourteenth century until the late 1890s, at which time Germany assumed control of both Rwanda and neighboring Burundi and ruled them as part of German East Africa. Following the German defeat in World War I, the Eeague of Nations mandated control of the two territories to Belgium, which had already colonized neighboring Congo.3 Rwanda achieved independence in 1962.4

Over the years, Rwandans have experienced several outbreaks of violence, beginning with the social revolution in 1959 when a Hutu5 government came to power and more intensely with the start of civil war in 1990 when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda.6 Many observers have attributed this violence to ethnic tensions and political competitions for power and control of increasingly scarce resources, including land.7 The ongoing hostilities in Rwanda reached a fevered pitch on April 6, 1994 after the plane of the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down outside the country's capital, Kigali, killing everyone on board.8 Within minutes of the crash, ultranationalists, primarily representing the majority Hutu ethnic group, began implementing a plan to systematically eliminate their enemies, including members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus who favored a power-sharing arrangement with the Tutsis. During the war and genocide, which were carried out by armies, militias, and ordinary citizens, members of both ethnic groups killed members of the opposite group and sometimes members of their own group, although the Tutsis sustained the greatest losses. …