On a hidden hill of Gasiza, Beatrice carries a basket of sweet potatoes. She has a beige rosary and black pendant dangling around her neck. She lives in this rural sector of Rulindo District with 4 of her 5 children and her husband. She wears a set of three-colored kitenge fabric and one piece is proudly tied around her head, matching her complexion.
The sweet potatoes that she carries from her garden are for sale on the market day, Friday. She cleans them in the nearby stream to remove all the mud stuck on them, this is her marketing strategy. In a small bag, she has put injumbure (small sweet potatoes of poor quality) to cook for her family.
Many hours of heavy toil under the sun have taken the bloom from her beautiful face. Lifelong digging has left on her hands callouses that have hardened them. As the first born, her father taught her how to earn a living from the nature. Beatrice is one those women who look sixty years old yet they are only thirty. Old age has been shoved onto her by the countless hours she spends in her farm in order to feed her children.
In Rwanda, just over the half of the population are women. Like Beatrice, many of these women are amongst the 44.9 of Rwandans who live below the poverty line. Her husband doesn’t help much in the farm or in her life. He works for only five days in a month at a small plant and earns 25 000Frw ($ 35), most of which doesn’t end up meeting his family’s needs.
“I can’t stand and lie that he helps me to raise our children, he lives like a single man!” she confesses in a sad, low voice.
The only responsibility he takes is to pay school fees of their first born daughter. Beatrice suspects that he only does this to avoid shame as their teen daughter lives with her maternal grandparents.
He spends most of his time and money in local bars eating brochettes and drinking well fermented urwagwa, an extremely popular local beer.
Beatrice is not on the list of 350,000 poor Rwandese families to receive a cow from the ‘Girinka - One Cow Per Poor Family by 2025’ policy. She is not recognized as vulnerable by the Ubudehe -Poverty categorization. The veal calf she raises was a sympathetic gift from her father. This cow provides her with farmyard manure that she spreads on her small farm. She mainly grows sweet potatoes and beans, the major staple crops in Rwanda.
Her Rulindo district was the first district to achieve District Imihigo; the performance contracts between the President of the Republic and local authorities. Beatrice doesn’t feel particularly proud of that victory because it hasn’t added any food on her table.
In rural Rwanda, women work more than men in their farms. While women spend 51 hours per week on farm and domestic duties, their male counterparts work for a meager 40 hours. This lopsided labour division stems partly from a lingering belief in the superiority of men.
In 2009, the land of a thousand hills was already a global leader in gender equity, second only to Sweden. Women empowerment is rooted in the 2003 constitution that set aside 30% of leadership positions to women.
This was rapidly followed by the establishment of several public institutions specialized in promoting gender equality and women empowerment in all sectors of life. Beatrice’s husband believes that all these new laws were set up to teach women disobedience. He doesn’t even understand the necessity of women’s right to inherit land as men do.
In the Strategic Plan for the Transformation of Agriculture in Rwanda (PSTA), gender was added as a cross-cutting issue as women dedicate more efforts in agriculture. But 32 % of female are still excluded from financial access due to lack of adequate collaterals.
Beatrice’s land is less than 0.3 ha and she could use it as a guarantee for a microfinance loan. She has small farming projects in her mind but on the other hand, she is paralyzed by the fear of risks. Because if she fails to pay the loan, she will have exposed the sole valuable asset they ever possess.
To avoid this risk, she sometimes works on building sites to earn some non-farming income. Her father has taught her to stack bricks and make a right-angled wall using a string. Further to this, she also does housework and babysitting for her richer neighbors then uses the wages to rent a piece of land and grow vegetables for sale. The rest of the cash is spent on the indispensable house items like soap, salt, oil and body Vaseline for her children.
Although it’s quite challenging to make ends meet, Beatrice can’t go back to her father, the only man who truly supports her. Whenever he harvests banana and cassava, he shares them with her daughter. To endure her pain, she regularly sings in her heart fervent Holy Mary canticles.
Beatrice’s situation is not an isolated case in rural communities. Other women in a similar predicament strive to fight against the feminization of poverty. Members of Duhuze imbaraga cooperative are a good example. They migrated from their native regions to Kigali in search of a better life. But once they reached this growing city, they quickly realized that city life was much harder than rural life.
Since they couldn’t return home empty handed, many set informal businesses to survive. They placed fruits and vegetables in udutaro, tradition baskets, balanced them on their heads and illegally sold them in the streets.
Tired of being constantly hunted by the police and local authorities, the women and other street vendors came together in 2011 and formed a cooperative known as Duhuze imbaraga (Let’s combine our strengths).
They initially borrowed small plots of land from the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR) in Kigarama, Kicukiro District. They have since consolidated these plots and grown maize on the entire land.
Kicukiro district noticed their efforts and nominated an agronomist to assist the cooperative members. In addition, the Rwanda Agriculture Board supplies them with fertilizers and improved seeds. Men have also joined them and they are now more than 100 individuals growing maize for the first half of 2015. The cooperative banks with Umurenge SACCO where they save what can be regarded as their shares.
Member of the Duhuze imbaraga cooperative know that one day the National Bank of Rwanda will take back its land. But before that happens, they will have made the utilized the land fully.
According to Kabibi Francoise, the president of the cooperative and a mother of seven, this initiative has lifted the livelihoods of its members. Apart from tangible benefits, it built the women’s confidence and they are now eager to expand their businesses.
Sometimes, when they carry their hoes in the middle of the streets, they are mocked by “civilized” women but this doesn’t discourage them. Nothing can stop them from realizing their farming dreams. Not even mockery and ridicule.
The Agaseke is another initiative targeting illegal female hawkers. The Kigali City Council assists them to market their handcraft products within and without the country.
At the national level, the National Women Council provides a broader platform for women to engage find growth opportunities.
Other efforts to empower women come from microfinance institutions like Kuremera Initiative, Business Development Fund, Duterimbere and more.
Duterimbere IMF supports low-income entrepreneurs, mostly rural women. The organization believes in the French adage “éduquer une femme, c’est éduquer toute une nation” (To educate a woman is to educate an entire nation). It has developed a very practical training curriculum for rural women about income generating activities. Moreover, it offers savings and credit services tailored for rural women.
As attested by Duhuze imbaraga cooperative members, there is hope for every single female farmer in Rwanda. Through perseverance and support from existing institutions, women like Beatrice can escape from the poverty trap. When that happens, she will be become a successful rwiyemezamirimo- entrepreneur able to buy nice clothes for herself and give her children a better life. As for her husband, he must... you tell me.