Rwanda: Women seek shared control of family assets (Syfia Grands Lacs)

| January 12, 2009

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Honorine is a Rwandan mother of five. She explains how assets are controlled in many Rwandan families. A woman can buy a goat with her own money. But she cannot sell the goat without her spouse’s consent, even though her husband can sell it without her permission.

A woman from northern Rwanda tells a similar story. She says that women might be consulted before a harvest is sold, but few will ever see the revenue.

In Rwanda, local tribunals frequently hear from women who want to change these unjust customs. The women are claiming their legal rights to shared control of family assets.

Jimmy Muhizi is president of a tribunal in Kibungo in eastern Rwanda. He says 25 per cent of cases involve women who accuse their husbands of wasting family assets. Mr. Muhizi says that it’s rare for men to consult their wives on financial decisions. He sees a long road ahead for women who seek shared control of household finances.

When women lack control of assets, children often suffer. A woman from the Gatsibo District of eastern Rwanda says she has lost three children to malnutrition. While the children went hungry, her husband spent money on alcohol and prostitutes.

Authorities report another disturbing trend in households where women have no control over finances. In the Ngoma District of eastern Rwanda, a dozen cases of domestic violence were recorded in the last four months. Emmanuel Kalisa is the head of Rurenge village. He says that domestic conflict escalates around harvest time, when revenues come in.

For many women, the solution is divorce. The president of the tribunal at Kibungo says that many women go to local authorities first, hoping to find a solution. But when they get to the tribunal, they are looking to separate. Even at this stage, many women do not realize that they have a legal right to family assets.

Jules Gahamanyi is executive director of the NGO Arama. He says that women must be better informed of their rights to family holdings and inheritance. Mr. Gahamanyi explains that, prior to marriage, Rwandan spouses choose how their assets will be controlled – either jointly or separately. But, because many young women are ignorant of the law, they are unable to protect their future.