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Women in Rwanda Get a Room of Their Own

At the end of an uneven trail of red-ochre earth stands the house of Solina Agatashya - a low, cracked edifice patched with blue plastic sheeting. It was here that Mrs. Agatashya was brought on her wedding day, here that she gave birth to her six sons. "It is a very nice house," she smiles. "There were three bedrooms and a place to build a fire."

The last time she was allowed to set foot in it was in February, about three years after she lost her husband and children to the genocide that left at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in 1994. A cousin from her husband's side of the family showed up to claim the house and the fields around it. Because unwritten but tenacious property laws deny Rwandan women the right to own or inherit property, Agatashya had to pack up her belongings and move in with one of her brothers. "He said he was sorry," Agatashya says of the man who took her home. "He said: 'Find another husband, then you can have a house.' "

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For women whose children managed to survive the genocide, the unwritten laws have an even grimmer prospect in store. Their children can be snatched away by any member of the husband's family since, technically speaking, women don't have the right to raise their children.

"If a woman's husband dies, or if a woman is repudiated, she can lose her house, her land, and her offspring in a single devastating blow," explains Jacques Kabale, a senior official in the Ministry for Family and Gender. "Women lose any right to their children with the dowry exchange. The moment the husband's family hands over at least one cow, it is understood that any children the wife will bear belong to the man and to his family."

Mr. Kabale, a Tutsi and lawyer by profession, returned to his native land from Bruxelles, Belgium, three years ago, after Tutsi rebels took over Kigali. He found a country devastated by the genocide. He also found that thousands of women, the backbone of Rwanda's agriculture-based economy, had been cast out of their homes and fields in a gradual sweep that could damage the country's future development.

"We knew we had to do something about it, but we were faced with a juridical vacuum. Custom and tradition prevailed over everything, as did the basic injustice of any arbitrary system," recalls Kabale. So he and a small team of legal experts and sociologists set about writing a law that for the first time would give women equal rights in terms of property and inheritance.

The Succession Law is currently waiting to be sent to parliament for debate and, it is widely believed, quick approval.

It would give women the legal instruments to claim an equal share and recover what they lost. A terse, 50-page document largely written by Kabale himself, the law is the result of one year of grueling field work.

During his one-year tour, Kabale discovered that more than 55 percent of marriages in Rwanda are never formalized. "Having lived with a man for 10 or 20 years, a woman can find herself suddenly stripped of everything. More often than not, she will be told it's her fault for having agreed to be a concubine," says Kabale.

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In a departure from tradition modeled on the Western approach to matrimonial law, women whose marriages were never formalized will now be able to lay claim to half the man's properties and assets after two years if the couple had children and five years if they did not.

Still, with the legal groundwork completed, the government faces an uphill battle to explain the law's provisions and persuade women to take legal action. "People in this country have no idea what the law says or does not say," says Alice Karakesi, a law professor at the University of Butare. "First, we will need to convince women they are being discriminated against. Then we will have to convince them to go out and claim what is theirs."

According to Beatrice Umubyeyi, a Rwandan attorney who has been working with women on property disputes, persuading women to take advantage of the new law will be a long, laborious process. "You have to consider that under the traditional system, women were ultimately taken care of, either by their brothers when their husband died ... or by another male member of their family," Ms. Umubyeyi says.

"They will need to realize that they don't need a male protector anymore, that they have just been given the tools to stand on their own two feet."

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