Rwandan Women’s Rights Organizations Stand Their Ground Amid Public Disapproval of New Law Governing Persons and Family

In August 2016, a revised law governing persons and family was published in the official gazette. This law was revised to comply with other laws and the constitution.  The old law contradicts  the principle of gender equality. Revised in 2015,the Rwandan constitution and the national gender policy recognize equality between women and men. The old law governing persons and family stipulates that a man is the head of the household and contains regressive articles that reinforced gender stereotypes. The old law created barriers for women’s full economic empowerment and decision making including on matters related to their sexual and reproductive health.

Through progressive articles in the revised law, Rwandans now have more control on everything from birth to parenting, marriage and divorce, or solving family issues. The revised legal articles make the customary rites (Gusaba) of paying bride price optional, set the age of consent to 18, make taking a spouse’s name optional for either partner and simplify divorce procedures.

Even though the law was passed towards the end of 2016, the general public became aware of it at the beginning of 2017 when government and civil society organizations started raising awareness of the law. Some articles raised public disapproval among Rwandans; especially among those who have a negative mindset toward gender equality. For example, article 209 of the revised law on management of the household states that “Spouses jointly provide management of the household including moral and material support to the household as well as its maintenance. One of the spouses performs those duties alone if the other is unable to do so. In case of disagreement, competent authorities take the decision.” Article 210 focuses on contribution to expenses of the household. It states that “each of the spouses contributes to the household expenses in accordance with his/her capacity and means.”

Men who perceive the law to be an “attack” on cultural and religious values stated their outrage through various print and social media outlets.  Also, some women think men are naturally the “leaders” and “decision makers” in all matters. (Here is one such media article in Kinyarwanda that covers various people’s opinions on the amended law.)

Cultural & religious practices, laws and policies shape and reinforce gender roles  and stereotypes. They also hinder  the implementation of policies that are contrary to such mindsets. The old law highly contributed to the mindset that only men can make a decision, whether they provide for the household or not, including on a family’s use of economic resources and on a woman’s choice to decide if and when to reproduce. With the revised law, Rwanda is taking a step to give equal value, voice and control for women and men. It also recognizes women as “breadwinners” who should contribute equally to family wellbeing. This is a major step to reinforce programs on women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work including ensuring women have a say on their sexuality and reproduction that can affect their lives and that of family wellbeing in general.

Women’s rights organizations stood their ground amid public  disapproval of the law. They organized meetings to express their stand and highlighted the strong patriarchal roots behind the disapproval. Many Rwandan women’s rights organizations welcomed the revision of the law as a great success because it manages to repeal some regressive language that contradicts other progressive national laws, including regional and international instruments which Rwanda has ratified.