Rwanda is a relatively young nation: after the terrifying happenings of 1994, the country had to reinvent itself, and in response to the genocide against the Tutsi, dozens and dozens of NGOs emerged to support and promote survivors’ rights, especially women and children.
Haguruka is one of the first NGOs that established its operations in Rwanda: its professionals and volunteers are specialised in providing free legal aid to vulnerable and marginalised groups of people. I had the chance to engage with Haguruka through its Executive Director Ninette Umurerwa: I am currently investigating women’s participation in politics in post-conflict Rwanda – which is the topic of my PhD research – and, due to my presence in Kigali regarding my fieldwork, I am very keen on promoting local best practices on giving voice to the voiceless; and Haguruka perfectly represents Rwanda’s NGOs commitment to women’s rights and gender justice, which is why I want to present one of the successful stories from this organisation.
How it started
Donatille Said: Nowadays, in most African countries, women are still seen as child carers, housewives, homekeepers and devoted wives. This very conception and idea of women often leads to different kinds of violence, either physical and/or psychological, and to other rights’ deprivations as -for example- not being allowed to own properties like men can.
I married in 1984, and since then my husband, Mfizi Stanislas, never granted me any right to have access on family properties; we lived together through a constant state of conflict, and in the meanwhile I gave birth to six children (though as of today, just three have survived).
A mere separation in the exile
In 1994, me and my husband had to flee to Zaire (the current DRC), due to the genocide happening in Rwanda; once in the country, we had to live in a refugee camp and our relationship turned as cold as a divorced couple. At some point the UNHCR, which was supporting refugees by distributing goods, food and such to families, provided me with a goat and gave another goat to my husband, even though the rules were that a family was entitled to one goat only.
Coming back to Rwanda
In 1997, we were able to come back to Rwanda. We changed country but my husband’s attitude towards me didn’t: he kept abusing me, and not allowing me any rights towards family properties. I lived in a constant state of obedience and submission for a long time. I wore the same single dress for a whole year, even though my husband had money. The children were almost always naked: he couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) buy them clothes.
In 2002, my husband agreed to claim a civil marriage: I started to hope for a positive change, but I was just naive by thinking of that because the situation became worse and worse. My husband started to beat me, in addition to the everyday harassment and insults. But this was just the tip of iceberg: by then, he completely stopped providing for the family. He started to eat and drink from restaurants, while my kids and I could only feed on what the neighbours gave. It was a very tough life to live.
The situation became psychologically unbearable, and I started to experience a lot of distress through constant hypertension and anxiety. I was totally and utterly traumatised.
Fighting to overcome the situation
After realising I couldn’t take more of that life, I had an idea: taking the case to court. Unfortunately, my first experience didn’t go well; I was physically weak, due to the daily harassment and beatings from my husband, therefore I could not make a follow up on the case and so nothing happened. After recovering I started to search for a lawyer who could help me on the second case. However, my second lawsuit was rejected as well.
At that point, I felt I was doomed to that life until the day of my death. But one day, I heard my neighbours Bumbakare and Rwamanywa talking about an organisation called Haguruka, which provides support to women and children who experience any sort of violence. I decided to reach out to them, in order to understand whether they could help me for my case.
How Haguruka helped me to get my rights back
I felt like this was my last resort: I came to Haguruka, desperate and hopeless, and what I found was a fantastic group of professionals providing legal help to vulnerable women and children. I told them my story, and they helped me to write down and document my situation in a clear and concise way, so that I could successfully defend myself in the court. Additionally, Haguruka also helped me in preparing a legal brief, along by supporting me with day-to-day assistance on how to behave in court in order to present my case in an effective way.
In the end, the legal support provided by Haguruka worked. Now I live peacefully with my husband Mfizi Stanislas, and I obtained equal rights as he does, for example by owning half of our family properties. I would like to thank Haguruka for helping me to get my rights back, which have been violated and abused since the very first day of our marriage.
Conclusively, I would like to let the African society in general to know that women are as powerful as men, and they should not be treated as materials or be deprived of their rights: in fact, they need to be empowered so that they can work hand in hand with their brothers and husbands to develop their regions, countries, and Africa as a whole.
- Alison Jin is a PhD student at the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies.