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,"
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. …