Legal help for widows robbed in bereavement

The Rwandan bloodbath of 1994 created hundreds of thousands of widows - many of whom are now the breadwinners for their own and orphaned children. Traditional law denies these women the right to their late husbands' property, reports Gemini News Service, but a new measure aims to change all that.
10 October 1997,

Life is a struggle for Adele Mukantabana. Although she has had no children of her own, she now cares for seven - the offspring of relatives who died in the Rwandan massacres of 1994.

Mukantabana, a widow who lives in a little rundown house on the edge of Kigali, has a small income from her job as a
primary-school teacher. But because of Rwandan traditional law, her husband's death stripped her of any property she could call her own.

She is one of an estimated 500,000 widows in Rwanda. With up to 40 per cent of households now headed by a female, legislation is proposed to grant these women the inheritance rights they have usually been denied.

Mukantabana's husband died three years ago, just as the former Hutu-extremist regime and its henchmen were beginning their three-month slaughter of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He had been suffering from malaria. "They gave him contaminated medicine," says Mukantabana. "In other words he was poisoned."

Although a Tutsi, she survived - partly due to her neighbours, who protected her. They liked her because she was so good with youngsters. She had been married for six years, but had not been blessed with children. Her husband had six from a previous marriage and Mukantabana says she cared for them as her own.

But the death of her husband led to her losing her house, land and the children. According to Rwandan traditional law, a woman has no inheritance rights. If she has children, she can hold property in their name, as a custodian, until they come of age. Otherwise, the man's property is inherited by the family that raised him.

In Mukantabana's case, her in-laws began by taking the children away.

"They told the children, 'You must take everything your father left in this house,' " she recalls. "They said they should take any papers showing that we had bought property together. As my husband had three separate properties, the family started to divide up these areas of land.

"They told the children this property belonged to the whole family - in other words to the paternal uncles, to the paternal aunts and all the rest. But when my husband was still alive they did not mention any of this."

The children were told that, because she was not their real mother, there was no reason for them to live with her. Then they made it clear that she was not wanted in the house, either.

"I believed that I was not safe and I had to leave the house," she says.

She moved to the capital with virtually nothing and, within a short time, found herself with six other children - mainly nephews and nieces - plus the youngest of her husband's children, who came to live with her.

She has taken no action to try to retrieve her husband's property.

Although by traditional law, she has no rights, some progressive judges have been known to grant women property in inheritance disputes. Without legal guarantees, however, Mukantabana is afraid of the consequences of going to court.

All she can hope for is that one day, with the support of her stepchildren, she may be able to meet her in-laws and sort the matter out privately.

"The issue of widows and their survival is a very big problem," says Aloise Inyumba, Minister for Gender, the Family and Social Affairs, who has initiated the drafting of new legislation to grant women equal property rights.

"It will be a breakthrough in our culture," says Inyumba. Traditionally, a widow is encouraged to marry a brother of her late
husband. This ensures that she and her children are looked after. But Inyumba does not see this as an option.

"We utterly reject it because we feel it is not a solution," she says. "We have to look at how we can empower women themselves rather than looking at the men for the livelihood of the widows."

Women should be provided with skills to make them self-supporting, she believes, adding that it is simplistic to think the problem can be solved by marrying women off to their brothers-in-law. However, it will take time to introduce the idea that women should be able to inherit property from their husbands and families.

"We are fighting with a culture - a mentality that's deep-rooted in people's opinions and attitudes. But it's changing. We are seeing women doing the work that is traditionally done by the men, and there is no alternative because the women now are the breadwinners of the households."

It is all the more important for women to be able to support themselves, given the additional burden - which falls mainly on women - of children left orphaned by the massacres.

The legislation is awaiting parliamentary approval. Inyumba is concerned about possible resistance to it from conservative
elements, but thinks it will be passed. Mukantabana says she thinks the new law will be "a good thing". - GEMINI NEWS

About the Author: AMELIA FRENCH is a freelance journalist based in Rwanda.

=A9Copyright: News-Scan International Ltd (1997) 10/10