Women’s Land Access in Post-Conflict Rwanda: Bridging the Gap Between Customary Land Law and Pending Land Legislation


Rose, Laurel L. 2004. “Women’s Land Access in Post-Conflict Rwanda: Bridging the Gap Between Customary Land Law and Pending Land Legislation.” Texas Journal of Women & the Law 13 (197): 197-250.

Author: Laurel L. Rose


  • This article addresses Rwandan women's problems in gaining access to land for residential and agricultural purposes following the war of 1990-1994. During the war, hundreds of thousands of women were forced to flee their communities. After the war, many women returned to their own and other communities, without husbands or male relatives, only to discover that the land that they hoped to claim was occupied by other refugees. Without husbands or male relatives to help them regain their land or to acquire new land, Rwandan women had few options but to struggle for land rights on their own. Similar to women in many other post-conflict societies, they were compelled to manoeuvre within a system of land law that had been greatly altered by war. The article discusses Rwanda's legal system, including the history and current state of customary land law and modem land legislation. It emphasizes women's rights to land under customary land law and the pending land legislation and argues that a gap exists between the customary and modem legal systems, creating both land access opportunities and constraints for women.


Impact of war on land rights: “The death or displacement of millions of people, as well as the return to Rwanda of earlier "pre-1994" refugees, had severely disrupted land occupancy patterns and had put added pressure on limited land and housing resources: vast numbers of people were occupying other people's homes or living in temporary shelters.” (200)

Women’s participation in war: “Rwandan women did sometimes suffer disproportionately; but it is also true, as a few observers have reported, that throughout the war some women were not victims but were victimizers: these women killed or injured other Rwandans and at times incited others to violence (e.g., participation in rape). These women gained several things from their activities: money from victims who tried to pay for their lives; land and property of victims who had been killed, injured, or forced to flee; and recognition and promotions from their peers and superiors.” (201)

“Despite the dissimilar experiences of Rwandan women during the war—either as victims or as victimizers—in the postwar period, many women share the common problem of land access…women are compelled to solve this problem in a variety of creative ways.” (202)

“By virtue of necessity, they become complex problem-solvers in that they must deal with their land access problems according to the contextual constraints and opportunities presented by a hugely transitional customary legal system on the one hand, and a disrupted, minimally functioning formal legal system on the other hand.'' (202)

“The war and its after effects significantly constrained women's efforts to claim family land. Women who returned from exile, either within or outside Rwanda, often discovered that their family or marital land had been claimed or occupied by others.”(228)

“Interestingly, many women who had virtually no chance of reclaiming their family land continued to fight for it—arguably as much for justice as necessity.” (229)

“Just as many women discovered that the war and its after-effects had constrained their efforts to claim birth family or marital family land, other fortunate women discovered that the chaotic land occupancy patterns following the war had opened up new opportunities. Often these opportunities arose because family members had died, were in exile, or were in prison, and therefore could not make use of or reclaim their land.” (229)

“Women exert more land control than might be expected from ideal formulations of customary law, and women do not assert land claims in the same way as do children. A number of women in the case studies made land claims as assertively as men—even if indirectly. A number of women also usurped the land rights of children, especially those under their guardianship.” (230)

“After the war, women felt compelled by necessity to assert new land rights and more direct methods of land control than stipulated by the unwritten rules of customary law. Many women took advantage of the postwar conditions of uncertainty in order to access land. The prewar gap between customs and laws and between rules and practices had been widened by the war.” (236)

Topics: Gender, Women, Post-Conflict, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Rights, Land Rights Regions: Africa, Central Africa, East Africa Countries: Rwanda

Year: 2004

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