Blogs: Land Owners or Land Users: Land Titling and Women’s Land Rights in Rwanda: Fortunee Bayisenge

Women’s land ownership has been a hot issue among different scholars, development practitioners and international development organisation such as the World Bank, FAO, IFPR, Department for International Development (DFID), and United States Agency for International Development. Land Tenure Reform Programmes (LTRP) have been undertaken or are in the pipeline in many African countries and international donors have been deeply involved in their design and implementation. In Rwanda, a LTRP was initiated in 2006. Before implementing its Land Tenure Regularisation program, Rwanda developed a set of laws, orders, legal and institutional frameworks; all of which emphasize women’s land and property rights. They include, among others, the Inheritance and Marital Property Law of 1999, the constitution of 2003, the National Land Policy of 2004 and the Organic Land Law of 2005. They all ascertain women’s land ownership.

Rwanda is a patriarchal society where women have been traditionally subordinated by men. This influences not only the relationships between men and women, but also differences in social position of different groups of women, and cultural norms and practices regarding women and gender relations.   Prior to the new land legal framework, Rwanda had no proper land policy or laws, except the 1976 land law and some land regulations, most of which date back to the colonial period. As a result, the prevalence of customary land tenure systems and the very limited application of written law, gave rise to land tenure insecurity and instability especially for women whose access to land depends on their relationships with their birth or marital families, and women rarely hold land in their own right. This is the reason why one of the main goals of the LTRP was to ensure gender equality with regard to access to land. The Rwandan LTR is concerned with the official and public registration of all land in Rwanda and the dissemination of information about ownership, value and use of land, as well as all related assets. By having a land title certificate, land can be used as collateral for loans, and it can be formally transferred or sold.

Nevertheless, there has been an assumption that as men are privileged over women in many societies, law may play conflicting roles both in preserving and maintaining patriarchy, as the control of men often has been consolidated by legal means, and in transforming existing norms and structures of patriarchy. The feminist perspectives suggest that policy implementation based on law is not neutral but rather a social and political product. Therefore, the adoption of good laws may not necessarily bring the desired and intended results. People react against change for a wide range of reasons, including cultural norms and values, religious belief and so forth. As by Rwandan culture, land was inherited patrilineally from father to sons. A woman automatically gained access to her husband’s fields to cultivate for him, their children and herself. If her husband died, as a widow she remained on the husband’s land, holding it in trust for her male children until they were mature enough to manage the family land.

Studies have shown that strengthening women’s land rights through LTR programmes have led to positive outcomes such as increased bargaining power, participation in decision-making and improved welfare. However, these results have to be contextualised. Since the implementation of Land Tenure Regularisation in Rwanda, things have changed: a number of women received either independent or joint titles with their husbands. By this, legally married wives own 50% of the registered land and their names are marked on the land certificate. Consequently, when an important decision is to be made, such as selling, transferring, lending or buying land, a man cannot make it without the approval of his wife because the consent of his wife and adult children is required and recognised by the law.

However, as stated by a Rwandan say that “a Hen cannot cock when the Cock is present”, although women are registered on land titles, but when it comes to taking a decision about the use of land or related property, men have always the last say. This gender regime rooted in patriarchy from which the Rwandan male is a breadwinner has been supported by cultural and religious institutions. Some women, especially in rural areas (mainly farmers) appreciate the fact of being subordinate to their husbands as it is the norm of the society, and characterise a good wife. For others, those educated or living in urban areas, they have to submit to this norm just because there is no other alternative. Moreover, as the land in Rwanda is scarce, that means that the majority of family farms are very small (around 0,7ha or less), land alone cannot assure the survival of families, so women work mainly on the land while the husbands go to search for other sources of income. In such case, women become the managers of agricultural productions.

What can we learn from this post reform context with regard to women’s land rights in Rwanda? One can say that women have become more conscient of their land rights and to some extend men’s power over land holding has been reduced as they have to negotiate a signature or a consent from their wives if they want to sell the plot. On the other side, one can easily say that women are more relatively managers of land than owners especially in the farmer’s family as they are more involved in farming activities than decision making. While the law protects formally married women’s rights to joint property under the community property of marriage regime, women in informal marriages have no such protections. Women in such situations lack bargaining power within their relationships, have little or no say in whether or not the property they use is sold by their husband, and are typically unable to remain on that property in the case of abandonment, divorce or separation. This situation implies that there is a need to revisit the question of land rights  and gender in the context of patriarchy, which is overlooked by the majority of scholarship on the agrarian question in Rwanda.