Legal aid brought to rural women in Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide in 1994 left behind an enormous number of widows and orphans, who also lost their fields. Traditionally, the right to land is inherited from father to son. Therefore, after the genocide, the widows and daughters of the victims did not have a right to the land they cultivated. In 1999, women received the right to own and inherit land, but still, few women know about this right.

With the support of KIOS, the Rwandan NGO Human Rights First Rwanda Association (HRFRA) has offered free legal counselling for rural women. It has helped women to gain ownership of their farmlands.

In 2015–2017, over 2,700 people received legal counselling through HRFRA. Most of the cases were related to rights of ownership. Thirty law students were trained in legal counselling, and they provided legal counselling at a legal clinic which travelled around the countryside.

Land disputes are solved in the communities, in so-called abunzi mediation committees. The members are local inhabitants, but they act as part of the legal system of Rwanda. During 2015–2017, supported by KIOS, 80 abunzi members received training in human rights, the rule of law and the constitution, as well as the most common laws used in abunzis.

KIOS also supported the publishing of a manual in the local language, which was distributed, among others, to abunzi members and legal advisers working in the communities. The manual contains information about human rights and explains in a simple way laws about land rights, inheritance rights and gender-based violence.

The organisation raised 10 legal actions and offered free legal aid for them. The cases concerned Rwandans of limited means who had faced human rights violations or injustice. The organisation won all the cases. One of the recipients of legal aid was Odette Uwanyirigira, who regained possession of the property of her sick husband by a court decision. The court decision serves as a precedent that women cannot be discriminated against because of their husband’s illness.

Although the freedom of expression of many NGOs is restricted in Rwanda, HRFRA also did advocacy work. With the support of KIOS, the organisation conducted a study on the impact of litigation fees on the legal protection of persons in vulnerable positions. On the basis of the study, a workshop was organised. Fifty members of the Rwandan judicial authorities and media representatives participated in it.