Decades ago, several practices defined gender roles in Rwanda and some of them included division of labour, types of food eaten as well as behaviour.
Cultivation was divided between women and men. While men cleared the land for nurturing, the women would plough the land. However, in some communities, women would stay home taking control of matters there while men went hunting or cattle rearing, assisted by the youth to watch over the livestock.
Construction of houses was the men’s role while the women were responsible for maintaining the household, raising children and preparing food.
In this era, women have been empowered. For instance, the percentage of women in the Rwandan parliament is higher than the percentage of men.
According to Alphonse Umulisa, Director at the Institute of National Museums Rwanda, traditions change but there are gender roles that simply do not.
“In traditional times a man had a drink that was always placed near his bed side. In earlier times, men would not eat in public. As a matter of fact, their wives would serve them and they would share the meal with the first born regardless of the gender,” Umulisa said.
He further adds that some Rwandan men would prefer drinking in public than eating despite the changing times.
“Specific food defined gender as well. For instance, bananas were considered food for the children and it was an abomination for a man to eat a banana in public. In addition, there were variuos sayings to discourage the eating of some kinds of food,” he said
According to Umulisa, the common saying, ‘Ntamugore Urya ihene idahenuye’ literally meaning ‘women are not supposed to eat goats’ meat before a ritual is performed on the goat’ prevented women from eating the delicacy before a ritual was performed, lest she suffered from allergic reactions.
“But those were just sayings and not traditions to portray men as greedy. It was the woman who cooked and served the husband and the children,” Umulisa said. “Currently, both men and women eat everything without any abominations.”
Other situations that defined gender were issues such as inheritance. When a father died in the family, his land and property was traditionally divided between his sons. The heir would look after the widow and the unmarried sisters until he found husbands for them. This has since changed given that the current Rwandan inheritance law has been revised to allow women to inherit property fairly.