Rwandan women: from submission to active citizenship

Themed article

In Rwanda, as in many other African societies, woman has been relegated to second class citizenship despite her vital role in agriculture, family well-being, and struggles for democracy. Traditional African cultures are often rooted in family practices which still treat women as subordinate to men.

Historically, the functioning of family and social systems in Rwanda followed an order that was seen as ‘naturally’ governed by patriarchy and male dominance in politics, economy and social life. Conservative values placed a woman on a lower step on the social ladder; her choices subordinated to her husband's decisions.1

However, since the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, the gender question and women’s role as citizens has been looked at again. As one recent study noted: ’in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, women were left as heads of households, as economic providers and as major actors in the society'.2 From this perspective, the 1994 genocide became a key catalyst for the reconsideration of women’s place in post-genocide Rwandan public life, in politics, the economy and even inside the family. The idea of citizenship means little without economic rights, and appropriately the first major field of reform was in inheritance and property rights. The first significant reform was the Matrimonial Regimes, Liberties and Successions Law of 1999.3 This law enshrined the principle of parity between men and women, including in matters of inheritance. This and subsequent reforms moved Rwandan women beyond accessing land only through husbands or fathers.

…. Rwandan women… have greater opportunities…to take a full part in public life and representational government.

Women – and most especially widows – could no longer be treated as objects to be given away to the family of the deceased husband. According to this law, upon the death of her husband, a woman cannot lose assets jointly owned with her husband to her husband's family. If the widow has custody of children born from the marriage, she is entitled to full administration of the entire patrimony that had belonged to her and her husband, including land. If the couple do not have children, a widow is still entitled to half the property, the other half being shared among her deceased husband’s other heirs. With practical independence, it was hoped that women would start to exercise broader citizenship rights in Rwanda, and indeed women’s dramatic entry into political life is one of the most remarkable features of post-genocide Rwanda.

A woman in Rwanda tells an audience how corruption has affected her life.
Credit: Transparency International Rwanda

A number of other laws have been enacted, for example to protect women against violence, including domestic violence. Other measures aim to increase women's presence in the labour market, by ensuring women can choose their profession and employment. These are impressive changes, given the old segregated labour market and commercial codes inherited from the Belgian colonial masters at independence. These only allowed Rwandan women to engage in commercial activities or paid employment with her husband’s consent. All these legal reforms represent remarkable steps. They cannot on their own solve all the obstacles Rwandan women face in becoming full and equal citizens, and some provisions still limit the scope of women to freely decide their destiny. Yet the reform process marks a tremendous turnaround in gender equality, and this trend continued with the adoption of the 2003 Constitution. Important sections of the Constitution are devoted to strengthening the legal basis for equal rights between women and men, with specific organs created to implement and regularly monitor the Constitution’s provisions. Public participation of women, including public office, was explicitly provided for.

Under the Constitution4, the Rwandan legal regime recognizes only ’civil monogamous marriage between a man and a woman’. In this spirit, polygamy has become an offence in Rwanda.5 And while the husband was for many years considered the head of the family, another newly enacted family law6 provides that ‘spouses jointly provide management of the household including moral and material support to the household as well as its maintenance’.

The protection of equal roles for men and women in household management makes it clear that men no longer have exclusive representation rights for both spouses’ interests within the matrimonial home. On this basis, a wife needs to give clear consent to any act regarding acquisition, ownership or alienation of property or land. And both partners have the right to take legal proceedings to recover property, in the event of fraudulent acts by the spouse. In line with this, Article 4 of the Land Law7 specifies that: ‘all forms of discrimination in relation to access to land and the enjoyment of real rights shall be prohibited. The right to land for a man and a woman lawfully married shall depend on the matrimonial regime they opted for’. This leaves a few loopholes that may need more attention in future, but does ensure that a woman in Rwanda is no longer treated as her husband’s dependent in terms of enacting her basic rights of citizenship.

Full implementation of these reforms must deal with customary and other attitudes that may impede the strengthening of gender equality in Rwanda. Yet as far as legal provisions are concerned, the reforms are significant. Violence against women has received particular attention, for instance, in both a legal and practical sense, ending the former impunity towards domestic violence. Rwandan women, especially those living in rural areas, are not free of gender-based violence, but the reforms ensure a better chance of redress for women who experience such abuse.

…. women’s dramatic entry into political life is one of the most remarkable features of post-genocide Rwanda.

Overall, the establishment of an adequate legal framework has been a commendable first step towards a more conducive environment to promoting respect and dignity for women. The remarkable and rapid growth of women’s direct participation in public life and across all levels of government is a testament to this8. The legal approach still needs other policy actions in order to ensure real equality for women9. From Amartya Sen we learn about: ’…an important distinction between capabilities and functionings…between having a right and being able to exercise it’.10 Rwandan women now have significant legal guarantees in many dimensions of their lives, and potentially this gives them greater opportunities to build a secure future for themselves, their families and communities, and to take full part in public life and representational government. The huge challenge remains to ensure that even women in rural areas can use their rights effectively in their
daily lives.

What might be proposed is a holistic approach, so that gender equality laws, and the human rights theories behind them, can be translated into rational exercises in gendered governance. Building successful gender practices in Rwandan society still requires the realistic consideration of traditionally, culturally and perhaps religiously-informed understandings of the appropriate places and roles of women and men in the home, and in Rwandan society more generally. All too often, debates on gender issues and women’s rights remain confined to decision-making gatherings that take place among elite circles. A more grounded approach could be bottom-up, to style rights in a way that integrates communities with traditional values to overcome resistance to the new norms promoted by laws in favour of gender equality. Yet without involving the rural population more centrally in this process, implementation may prove difficult. Most Rwandans are deeply embedded in religious beliefs, and most religious organizations are conservative in relation to gender and family, rejecting national and international laws promoting gender equality as dogmas. For this reason, those designing and implementing gender policies need to engage religious institutions more directly, tapping into their adherents’ trust in these institutions’ moral authority. In schools too, gender-related education could start in primary schools, before children’s gender-related beliefs and attitudes become fixed. 

Social transformation can be stimulated through law; yet social change also calls for an awareness that shared understandings among Rwandans of what is right and wrong will help determine whether gender parity laws are underpinned by strong support among Rwandans themselves. In this way, firm economic, legal and cultural foundations will be laid for fully equal Rwandan citizenship in the future. This in turn will strengthen the basis for democratic politics in the country, on the basis of both genders’ capacities and needs. In Rwanda, as elsewhere, (in the words of Chairman Mao) women still ‘hold up half the sky’. And sometimes more than half.


Valentin Akayezu Muhumuza 
PhD researcher at ISS-EUR

Image top: Rwandan anti-corruption advice centre receives complaints.
Credit: Transparency International Rwanda


1. Amusan, L. And O. Olutola (2017). ‘Contextualising African Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture: Challenges from Climate Change and Mineral Extraction Perspectives’. Journal of International Women's Studies, 18(4), 117-130.

2. Pamela A. and D. Malunda (2015), ‘The Promise and the Reality: Women’s Rights in Rwanda’. Oxford Human Rights Hub, Working Paper No. 5.  

3. This law has been replaced by a new Law Nº27/2016 of 08/07/2016 governing matrimonial regimes, donations and successions in Official Gazette n°31 of 01/08/2016

4. Art. 17, Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda of 2003 revised in 2015 in Official Gazette n° Special of 24/12/2015

5. Law N°59/2008 of 10/09/2008 on prevention and punishment of gender- based violence in Official Gazette N°14 of 06/04/2009

6. Art. 209, Law Nº32/2016 of 28/08/2016 governing persons and family in Official Gazette nº37 of 12/09/2016

7. Law No 43/2013 of 16/06/2013 governing land in Rwanda in Official Gazette No special of 16/06/2013

8. According to Article 10(40), Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda of 2003 revised in 2015, supra note 4: Rwandan women shall have 30% representation in all national political instances.

9. Rwanda holds 4th place in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. However, while Rwanda is 4th for women’s political empowerment, it is still in 113th place for educational attainment. See World Economic Forum (2017). ‘Global Gender Gap Report’

10. A. Sen, (1999) ‘Development as Freedom’. Oxford University Press as quoted by Pamela A. and D. Malunda (2015), ‘The Promise and the Reality: Women’s Rights in Rwanda’. Oxford Human Rights Hub, Working Paper No. 5. 


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