Julian Bapfakurera lives in Kinyinga village, Gasabo district in Rwanda. She was legally married to her husband. Then he married a second wife. But Rwandan laws do not recognize polygamy as a form of marriage, so the second marriage was not legal.
Her husband later died. He gave everything, including the land she was farming, to his second wife. Ms. Bapfakurera was left with nothing. She received nothing from the local institution which deals with land and property issues. Her co-wife had befriended and bribed the officials.
But now, as a member of the Village of Hope initiative run by the Rwanda Women’s Network, Ms. Bapfakurera has successfully reclaimed her rights.
Odeth Kantengwa is the coordinator for the Rwanda Women’s Network. The organization trains community paralegals across the entire country. The Network educates them on existing land laws, most of which can be of benefit to women.
Ms. Bapfakurera approached the community paralegals for assistance. They accompanied her to talk to the local officials. The paralegal team explained to the officials that Ms. Bapfakurera was entitled to her husband’s land and other property. The paralegal team carried a copy of the laws, which they quoted. The case was resolved in Ms. Bapfakurera’s favour. She is now a happy woman.
Ms. Kantengwa says, “We have the land law, law on inheritance, law on succession and law on land legislation.” All these laws support grassroots women who farm as their main source of livelihood. But many women are not aware of the laws. This is why the group established a program to train paralegals.
The paralegal training is offered to rural people, so that they can understand the law. All paralegals are community members. They also receive training on gender-based violence. This is directly linked to the land problems many rural women face. In turn, the paralegals educate other communities.
According to Ms. Kantengwa, this knowledge and awareness has created a big challenge for the people working in land institutions. She says, “Women can stand up and point out the laws [when] there is a dispute.”
Ms. Kantengwa acknowledges that government support has brought great hope to rural farmers in Rwanda, a country with unique land issues. For example, the government set up a land consolidation team. The team classifies the country into regions of specific crops. Through radio and community groups, the paralegals trained by Rwanda Women’s Network inform the farmers about the right crop for their region.
After the genocide, many refugees returned. They want to settle on the land, which results in land disputes. The land consolidation team plays a part in settling such disputes. All these initiatives are aimed at supporting rural farmers in Rwanda – most of whom are women.
Click here  for Notes to broadcasters on the IDRC symposium.