Access to justice is critical to ensuring that people are able to fully understand their rights and how to protect them as citizens under Rwandan and International Law. Many people, especially those living in rural areas, are impoverished and unaware of their human rights. As a consequence, they are unable to afford legal services whereby they can be advised of their rights and the systems that are in place to protect them. Thus, iPeace’s Gateway to Justice (G2J) Project core objective is to fill this gap.
In the five districts iPeace works, the most common types of disputes are land related disputes which typically involve inheritance (izungura), gifts of land (umunani), informal marriage unions and land transactions. According to the World Bank, land related disputes are prevalent and increasing in Rwanda. As land pressures in Rwanda are extremely high due to the country’s high population density, land-related conflicts comprise 70-90% of disputes being heard by the courts.
The Rwandan government has embarked on a wide-range of reforms that aim to quickly and fundamentally change the ownership, use, and administration of land within Rwanda. These reforms focus on formally documenting land ownership, which brings latent, competing claims to the forefront. Albeit, at the same time these positive legal reforms are providing stronger rights for women, orphans, and other marginalised groups within the country.
Despite significant land tenure reform programs, many Rwandans have limited understanding of their rights and how those rights can be exercised and enforced. According to a USAID commissioned report, the lack of understanding is particularly relevant to the women that these legal reforms seek to ultimately protect, resulting in perceptions of bias, fear of community mistreatment, and groups not readily availing themselves of local services. Complex family relationships further complicate inheritance and family land allocation, reducing already modest parcels to very small landholdings. In addition, the rapid rate of land formalization, a lack of clarity and information regarding land rights, incomplete knowledge for exercising those rights, and inaccessible or ineffective land dispute resolution mechanisms oftentimes exacerbates these tensions.
This week for example, the G2J team handled a case of a woman whose husband passed away, and thereafter a son of the deceased claims to have been given the land left by the deceased through a will. The surviving wife’s name was not included in the will. He has consequently chased the surviving spouse from the family land and claims ownership rights over it. Her case is currently being handled by our team. Under Rwandan law, the surviving spouse has the right to inherit her deceased husband’s land, whether there is a will or not. This is just one of seven new cases that iPeace has received regarding land disputes this week.
In order to attend to these types of cases, iPeace’s outreach team has been in the field working with community leaders and members to provide a safe space to discuss land related issues; allowing participants to break down barriers through exchange and discussion of common interests. These dialogues help increase the understanding of land issues that individuals and communities face, whilst at the same time encouraging a search for community-driven solutions. In turn, these discussions provide important insights about land-related issues that can inform broader policy debate, providing the government information to make more informed and more responsive land policies.
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