When Josephine Mukahigiro lost her husband last year, all she wanted was solace; especially from those she called ‘family.’ Little did she know that her in-laws, the relatives she had so lovingly invited and welcomed into her home, would only add to the already daunting pain she felt.
Barely a few months after her husband’s death, property that legally belonged to her and her children was grabbed by her in-laws.
“We had rentals from which we raised school fees and money for food. But when my husband died, my in-laws came in to take it all away under the guise of protecting their son’s property,” she recalls.
“My children had to go without food and we had nothing to support us, since I didn’t have a job. However, I decided to stand up for myself because I knew I had rights to the property,” Mukahigiro adds.
Her valor saved her and her children; she called for family meetings and demanded to get her share as stated in her late husband’s will.
“Yes a few properties were taken but at least I managed to secure some and now I am taking care of my family,” she says.
The loss of a husband causes unimaginable suffering and in some cases, the trauma is worsened by vultures guised as family members only interested in the deceased’s assets.
Mukahigiro’s case is just one of the many where women suffer at the hand of merciless in-laws who turn their backs on them in their hour of need.
Marguerite Uwamahoro, the Women Mobilization Officer at the National Women’s Council, says that such cases are received by the council and are handled through orientation.
She says, “When the husband passes away and a woman gets conflicts with her in-laws in regards to property management, we mostly help her through guidance and orientation. There are certain organisations that we work with such as Haguruka, that help with this kind of situation, making sure that matters are handled by the law.”
Uwamahoro says that the council strives to work at all administrative levels from national to community to promote women’s empowerment.
“Women should know their rights and shouldn’t be mistreated; instead, they should seek justice by approaching organisations that can help deal with their issues.”
What the law says on inheritance
Robert Mugabe, a Kigali-based lawyer, explains that a woman is entitled to her husband’s property whether they are married officially or not.
He says, “In the case where they are officially married depending on the matrimonial regime that they signed and assuming they share everything, the law of the matrimony of community regime gives authority to both spouses equally towards ownership of their property. When one of them passes on, it’s the other who remains with authority according to the family law of 1999.”
The wife remains in control of the property while looking after the children who only get their share after turning 18 because in that time, according to the law, the child is no longer under the custody of the family.
Mugabe says that when the man dies after making a will, it is the will that is followed as it is the first priority. But when the will isn’t present, the law takes its course. And when the widow decides to remarry, she gets 25 per cent and the other percentage remains for the children.
Mugabe also mentions cases where two people were living together as a couple but were not legally married.
With this, he says, a woman is also entitled to the property with evidence showing that they had both worked for that property.
In that case, they don’t refer to the family law; it’s the gender-based violence law that is used because it provides other favours to the woman.
“Relatives have no say on the widow’s property at all unless one has a share indicated in the will. They can only intervene when the wife, father and children are not there and then they come in as a second generation,” he asserts.
The cultural barrier issue
Margaret Mukangwije, an elderly resident of Gahini sector in Kayonza District, Eastern province, recalls that in Rwandan culture, upon a husband’s death, his property was traditionally divided between his sons as girls were not allowed to inherit.
She says that the widow and the sisters were always taken care of by the heir, sometimes the widow was remarried by one of the brothers of the deceased, and this was termed as Guhugura.
Remarriage to the deceased’s brother wasn’t forceful and the in-laws only did it to keep the widow in the family.
Though the law has given women rights to inherit, it’s still an issue in society.
What people say
Victor Ahumuza wonders why some in-laws are a thorn in the flesh when it comes to property distribution of the deceased.
“I wonder why in-laws rarely respect the wives of their relatives. This is absurd because when they tie the knot they instantly become family,” he says.
He says that when property is confiscated from widows, not only do they make the woman suffer, the children too suffer and this is beyond unfair.
“Relatives should always try to mind their own business, they should intervene only when their aim is offering help, otherwise they should always let widows be because they are only worsening the situation,” he says.
Yvonne Nirere is of the view that people should start working to have their own property instead of fighting for the deceased’s possessions.
“Some family members turn their backs on widows ignoring the fact that the children are their blood and are family. Most of them fight for control of the property pretending that their aim is to protect it yet they have selfish intentions,” Nirere says.
She advises women to always know their rights and not accept intimidation because they have the law on their side that protects them.
Rafak Nara shares her experience revealing that her relatives did a similar thing when her father passed away.
“My uncles sold the land without giving us a single coin and my mother had to struggle to feed and educate us from the small jobs that she took on,” she says.
She says that women end up suffering because in most cases relatives cease to see them as part of the family when the husband passes on.
I SAY: How can women avoid property conflicts?
Ritah Uwamahoro, sales person
This is a very serious issue that every woman should put in mind to secure her future and that of her children. We have heard of women after the tragedy of losing their partners, who’ve had to deal with greedy in-laws trying to take away the little she was left with. Married women should make sure that there is clear evidence of ownership of property in the event of tragedy, and the channel of inheritance should also be well documented.
Joyce Nyirabagande, vendor
Losing a partner is unfortunate, and when you combine it with losing even the property you are entitled to, property that you worked so hard for, it becomes even more unfortunate. If people are married, they should make sure that the ownership of their properties is faultless and is in line with the law regarding spouse inheritance. With that in place, it is hard for relatives of the deceased to grab one’s property regardless of the situation.
Maria Tereza, businesswoman
In order for women to avoid in-laws grabbing their property, they need to ensure that they have legal services assigned to what they own or what their husbands’ owned. Tragedy happens, it’s important to be on the safe side in case of any unplanned disasters. Having access to legal services allows you to be secure in case there are some misunderstandings in the family, since there are legal documents that prove what a woman is entitled to after the death of her husband. Women should also ensure that there is a line of heritance.
Niceson Karungi, IT business analyst
I think it’s high time that people embrace the culture of writing wills if they wish not leave their families in trouble. Having a will helps a family stay away from any further conflicts over property and it follows a line of inheritance as per your wishes. Women should encourage their partners to draft wills, so that in case of any tragedy, like death, the family remains stable. It’s not a bad thing to draft a will; people need to change their attitude regarding that.
Compiled by Dennis Agaba