“Being abused and beaten by my husband had become part of my life as a married woman, until I found Haguruka, where I got the support that I needed to escape that terrible situation.” – Donatille.
The Rwandan society is characterized by a deep-rooted patriarchal structure, and the prevailing socio-cultural norms around gender, masculinity and femininity are clearly linked to this system.
This context has traditionally led to women being denied rights to possess or claim ownership of property. Although, these rights are asserted by laws, enforcing them can be quite a challenge.
One woman, Donatille, recounts her journey of claiming her rights with the support of Haguruka.
How did it all start?
My husband and I started living together in1984, but he never granted me my rightful access to family properties. We lived together in a state of constant conflict. During our marriage, I gave birth to six children but, unfortunately only three of them survived.
A Separation in Exile
When the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 began, my husband and I fled to Zaïre (currently called Democratic Republic of Congo). We had to live in a refugee camp, and our relationship, which had always been rocky, turned from bad to worse.
Coming back to Rwanda
In 1997, we were able to return to our homeland, Rwanda, but my husband continued to deny me my land rights, and to abuse me. For a long time, I lived in a constant state of obedience, submission, and deprivation. I remember wearing a single dress for a whole year, and our children being almost always naked, despite my husband having enough money to buy them clothes.
In 2002, my husband agreed to claim a civil marriage and I started to, naively, hope for a positive change. But once we were legally married, the situation worsened. My husband started beating me, in addition to harassing and hurling insults at me on a daily basis. But this was just the tip of the iceberg; he stopped the little financial support he had been providing to the family, and started eating and drinking from restaurants while my children and I had to depend on our neighbours’ generosity for sustenance. 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 traumatized.
Fighting to overcome the situation
After realizing I could not go on living like this, I came up with the idea of taking my case to court. Unfortunately, my first experience with the justice system was not very good. Due to my husband harassing and beating me daily, I became so physically weak that I could not follow up on the case.
Once I recovered, I started to look for a lawyer who would support me with the case once again. However, my second lawsuit was rejected as well, possibly because my lawyer was not able to present the charges convincingly enough. At that point, I felt I was doomed to that life until the day of my death.
But one day, I heard two of my neighbours talking about an organization called Haguruka, which empowers women and children who are victims of gender-based violence to claim their rights. I decided to reach out to them, in order to understand whether they could support me to get the justice I needed and deserved.
How Haguruka supported my quest to claim my rights
I came to Haguruka as a last resort, feeling desperate and hopeless. What I found was a group of dedicated professionals providing legal aid to vulnerable women and children. When I told them my story, they helped me to document my situation in a clear and concise way, so that I could successfully defend myself in court. Additionally, Haguruka assisted me with preparing a legal brief and provided me with guidance on court proceedings and protocol; all of which allowed me to present my case effectively.
In the end, the legal support provided by Haguruka worked and I managed to claim my rights which had been violated and abused since the very first day of our marriage. I obtained equal rights to our family property as my husband does. Claiming my rights empowered me to also address other issues in my marriage including abuse. My husband and I began to constructively discuss and resolve our conflicts peacefully.
In conclusion, my message to Rwandans is that women are as valuable human beings as men are, and they should not be reduced to objectification or deprived of their rights. In fact, women need to be empowered, to work hand in hand with their brothers and husbands in developing not only their countries and regions, but also Africa as a whole.