1.1  Women and Women’s Land Rights in Rwanda

Rwanda is a country that is predominantly rural, i.e., a great majority of its population live in the rural areas and are fully dependent on subsistence agriculture and other natural resources for livelihood. Women represent a great majority of its workforce; women are considered caretakers of households and they, too, are the main cultivators of land. Women and gender equality, however, are at the heart of Rwanda’s developmental goals; in fact gender is enshrined in Rwanda’s 2003 Constitution, which promotes gender equality at all levels of the society.

In 2010, the Government of Rwanda implemented a nationwide comprehensive land reform program through the Land Tenure Regularization Program (LTRP) thus giving women equal land rights with men. Achieving this point is not without struggle against the pervasive disenfranchisement of women. It came with a long history of women’s marginalization that is classic of patriarchal Africa.

1.2  The Social and Economic Inclusion of Women through Securing Women’s Land Rights

Securing women’s land rights is key to women’s empowerment. The land reform process that that has taken place in Rwanda provided a mechanism to break the pervasive disenfranchisement of women on access to, control over and use of land. It has enabled positive transformations in women’s lives, both social and economic. Nonetheless, for LTRP’s fruition to be fully realized, the synergies of certain complex barriers will need to be broken; because these barriers will undermine gender inclusive development.

1.2.1   Women’s transformation as partners of men

The benefits from LTRP can be glimpsed pre-LTRP vis-a-vis post-LTRP on women’s perception of their own experiential transformations.

  • First and foremost, women considered land as core to their empowerment. It is central to their everyday life: They derived livelihoods from land; and land provided a sense of food security for the household. But, women were voiceless; they were not allowed to participate in household decision-making, much less on land matters. And women were in every perceivable situation of oppression. They simply received orders from men and accepted whatever fate there was installed for them; men were the only voice in the household. There were instances where women would realize that their husbands had leased their land or sold their harvests, but they could not complain. And women were expected not to complain else they would face their husbands’ fury.
  • Second, the detachment of women’s self-worth: Without land rights, women perceived themselves as just men’s property. Women felt equated to land that can be accessed, controlled and used anytime at the discretion of their husbands.
  • Third , as men had sole discretion and decision-making power on land matters, men as a result were able to conceal from their wives their other land properties. Men accessed, controlled and used their other properties for reasons that were not advantageous to the immediate family.

Juxtaposed with the above backdrop to bring out the perceived gains from LTRP, the women claimed to experience transformations in their private domain[1]. They claimed a sense of empowerment, with which without LTRP they would not have experienced at all:

  • First, women’s inclusion in household decision-making processes: Anchored on LTRP having given women equal land rights with men and secure land rights, women felt being included in household decision-making. Knowing that their names were written in land registration and land titles, women started to influence men in decision-making especially on land matters. Decision-making has become consultative and participatory: men started consulting women and gathered their consent prior to making decisions on land matters.
  • Second, as economic actors, women felt empowered through their financial inclusion in formal financial institutions. A land title equipped them with a legal document to use as collateral to apply for credits and loans . Women also perceived being financially shockproof in case divorce will have become inevitable. With an equal share of land property, women thought of themselves as resilient to future shocks, being able to start a new life and to take care of their children. Men, on the other hand, were perceived to start valuing land as a family affair, and shun the idea of divorce since they know that, in divorce, they will lose part of their property
  • Third, disclosures: With the implementation of LTRP, disclosing land properties have become mandatory, such that men were forced to reveal all their land properties and, as mandated by law, to equally share them with women.

For women, LTRP has brought a paramount sense of transformation whereby being aware of the legitimacy of their land rights, women started perceiving themselves as men’s equal partner in household decision-making. This sense of empowerment emancipated women from being seen as, like land property of men, subject to men’s discretion in access, control and use.

1.2.2   Women’s financial inclusion through securing women’s land rights

Securing women’s land rights is key to women’s empowerment. In the realm of economic inclusion, Kairaba (2010) similarly pointed out in her seminal paper in that women’s land rights directly impact women’s ability to access finance. In Rwanda, two seemingly parallel events are evident to account for the financial inclusion of the communities, in general, and of women, in particular:

  • One, which is a nationwide drive, is the establishment of community SACCOs beginning 2010 whereby 90% of Rwandans now live within a 5-km radius of a SACCO (AFI, 2014).
  • Two, the LTRP, which secures women’s land rights. To obtain a loan from formal financial institutions such as community SACCOs, one needs proof that one can pay back the loan in case of default. In which case, a land title is a collateral that has particularly empowered women to access loans and credits in such institutions.

A cross-sectional view to allow gender comparison of participation in formal financial institutions, however, offers overt disparity in loan participation between women and men. For the period 2011 to 2016, men dominated the credit applications accounting for 57% to 71% of loan approvals, while women 29%-42% only (FinScope, 2016). However, despite this seemingly skewed gender participation in loans, there has been an observed increasing trend in participation among women over the years. At national level, financial exclusion of women decreased from 32% to 13% between 2012 to 2016 (FinScope, 2016). This observation, again, brings one to capture the gains from LTRP on women’s financial inclusion.

The following are overt reasons for the observed gender disparity:

  • Prevailing societal norms and hierarchies: For instance, (i) men have always been regarded as heads of the household and, as such, they are seen responsible for household financial and banking transactions. Opening of accounts was perceived not to interest women thinking that the husband’s account is already for the family; (ii) women still fear their husband’s wrath if and when they propose for loan applications, and (iii) “misrepresentation” in instances where women applicants are granted bigger loans, register their names in the applications, but men finally collect the money; and
  • Women’s lack of knowledge and ignorance on credit application requirements and their lack of awareness that women-support programs are available for them.

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