Traditionally, girls and women in Rwanda had a certain place and role in society different with the roles they have now or are expected to play. We are going to explore what was the original roles of a girl and woman in Rwanda? How were girls raised according to cultural norms? Did they have any rights?
To answer these questions, we must start from when a girl was still 8 to 10 years old. According to Rwandan philosopher Alexis Kagame, In his book “Les organisations socio familiales de l’ancien Rwanda” written in 1954, He suggests that a girl was always with her mother, helping with cleanliness as she could at her tender age.
At age 15, her education was no longer her mother’s responsibility, due to the changes a teenage girl experience in puberty, Rwandan culture prohibited parents to discuss sexual life with their children, as a result the mother would encourage the teenage girl to get out and form friendships with other girls her age. If the girl was shy and did not want to go out and make friends her mother would exhort her “You are stupid! Why don’t you go out with others?”. The idea that girls should stay at home was obviously introduced in Rwanda recently. It was not traditional.
Girls would form friend’s circles in their region and neighborhood. These circles were very tight; the girls would go out every afternoon, to perform different tasks namely pick plants used in decoration, learn basket-making, learn how to compose a song and to dance; and most importantly perform the ritual of labia elongation. A girl was supposed to start this elongation process early because otherwise it would be too late by the time she is married off and it would not have the desired effect. Failure to perform the labia elongation was not an individual shame to a girl but also to her family since her husband would divorce her immediately after realizing that she had not been through the process.
It was also the reason why a girl’s family would deny her hand to her suitor, saying “she is still young”, this meant that she had not yet finished the labia elongation process, the family would only allow to marry her if the other party gave their word that the young girl would not be divorced due to the reason mentioned above.
Girls from the same neighborhood were always together, most of the time preparing their friend’s wedding. Parents would never deny permission to a girl to attend her friend’s wedding, it would result in being alone in her own wedding and that was also a shame to her family. A girl would typically have the same manners and behaviors as her neighborhood friends since they were always out together.
Contrary to popular belief, girls were not forced into marriage they did not want. It is true that the wedding was between two families, but a girl had always ways to show her disapproval and choose whoever she wanted. One way to do it was to simply pass through the assembly while they were in the ceremony of “gusaba”. This was a clear sign that meant to the bridegroom and his family “I despise you”. Another way of disapproving an unwanted marriage was for a girl and her friends, to compose a song that denigrated the husband to be, by hearing this song he would usually stop the marriage preparations and even avoid that region since such songs got popular quickly.
However, when the groom and his family were powerful, and a girl still was not interested, she would try to protect her family by not refusing to marry directly and consequently creating an unnecessary feud between her family and a more powerful family. Instead, she would let the marriage take place but divorced in the first months and emphatically refuse to go back.
This way, the families would say “it is not our fault, it just did not work out”. And the two families would live in peace. Girls used this latter technique too when they got the news that there was some even more powerful young man that wanted to marry them. There was also times when a girl just walked in her chosen man’s house this was called “kwishyingira”, the marriage ceremonies were performed afterwards. What all these examples reveals is that girls had rights as to whom they marry, Rwandan culture provided that. They could also divorce at any time.
There were problems unique to girls though, when a girl got pregnant before marriage, babies born in this way were considered harmful to the whole nation and were supposed to be killed and buried outside Rwanda. This was achieved by exiling the pregnant girl on an island in Lake Kivu, so that she dies of thirst and hunger or they would throw her in a pit.
The only way to save the pregnant girl’s life was that, the man responsible for her pregnancy marries her quickly before it was evident she was pregnant. It was not necessary that she marries the one who got her pregnant she could also marry a friend; the point was that she marries before people notices the pregnancy. Even if she manages to get married quickly the baby was to be killed, it was a spiritual belief. This too disapproves the belief that pregnant girls were immediately killed, it was the last step.
There was times when the young man who impregnated a girl was severely punished too, and that is when he had raped her, if the girl had screamed, her family would certainly avenge her. Only if the whole process had happened with the girl’s consent then her family could not help her in any way.
Cooperation between husband and wife
In Rwanda, though the man was considered the master of the house, he was not allowed to meddle in the household’s economics, that was the wife’s territory. The wife was in charge of making reserves for the family, putting aside the next year’s seeds and everything else regarding the household’s assets. When the man intervened in how the wife manages the above, society would ridicule him.
It was a well known fact that if a man is rich it was due to his wife’s management skills. The man could not give any of the family’s property without the consent of his wife.
When a woman was strong-willed, masculine and intelligent, her husband would always follow her advice, and people would call such a man “inganzwa” and they would add that “He was lucky to marry a strong-willed woman since he himself is soft”.
Whereas when the man was masculine and still listened to his wife, they would say that he is caring (Arakundwakaza).
In families which practiced farming, the man would always help his wife. The man till the soil and the wife planted seeds. The woman was supposed to do the least painful work.
At home, it was the woman who cooked, however the man would help her by fetching water and wash vegetables. The only task that women performed alone was cleanliness. This too contradicts the belief that Rwandan men should not be involved in the kitchen that it is up to women and girls. In ancient Rwanda, men mostly lived in barracks or accompanied their master’s everywhere. They cooked for themselves in all these places; it was not a surprise to help their women in the kitchen in a few months they were home.
Another surprising fact is that women used to have their own property. A woman could accumulate cows that were bestowed to her by her family whenever she gave birth, this was her own property that she could take with her whenever she had to divorce.
This cooperation between men and women changed and got to a point where Rwandan girls and women had seemingly no right to go out and socialise, no say in the household, no property, and was assigned every domestic task. It is difficult to know exactly the reason behind this. Was it colonialism and its two religions Christianity and Islam which doesn’t offer women as many rights as Rwandan culture did? Was it the first and second Republic which didn’t guarantee girl’s equal rights to education and property? Whatever is the reason it is clear that traditionally girls and women in Rwanda had rights that were wrongly revoked, it is time to fully restore them.
“Les organisations socio-familiales de l’ancien Rwanda” Alexis Kagame, 1954