Student - October 30, 2008

RWANDAN WIDOWS ARE NOT NECESSARILY VULNERABLE

During the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, almost a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed, and millions of people fled. Sociologist Dr. Marian Koster has concluded that the government and development organizations wrongly persist in seeing widows as the most vulnerable group.

Koster did research in Rwagitima, a village in North-eastern Rwanda. One of the assumptions she encountered among government officials and development organizations was that as a result of the genocide, many families are headed by widows, and that they are hard up. But her research revealed that only one third of households were led by women, which is no different to many other African countries. What is more, the widows often seemed to be no worse off than the rest. This is because for years they have received support from government and from development projects to build their houses, obtain access to land or pay their children’s school fees.

Divorced women did seem vulnerable, however. They receive no aid, have little access to land and often cannot pay school fees. Yet they are overlooked by government and aid organizations. Their fellow villagers think they are supported by their ex-partners, but that is seldom the case.

Koster does not argue for withdrawing support from widows, many of whom still need it. But she does think that the government and development organizations should pay more attention to other vulnerable groups in the society, including divorced women, older single men and migrants. They are easily overlooked if it is assumed that female-headed households are poorer and more vulnerable than the rest.

The government’s agricultural policy needs changing too, says Koster. The current policy focuses on upscaling, and farmers are stimulated, sometimes under pressure, to stop growing lots of different crops on several small plots of land. This policy disadvantages small farmers, who cannot afford the risks involved in larger scale agriculture, and depend for their food security on precisely this cultivation of multiple crops on several plots. But Koster does think the Rwandan government is doing some good things too. After the genocide, the government realized that in a country where in some regions women made up 80% of the population, women were crucial to the reconstruction effort. Since then, new rules and regulations have improved their position by making it easier for women to obtain credit, education and land. / Joris Tielens

Marian Koster obtained her PhD on 22 October. Her supervisor was Anke Niehof, Professor of the Sociology of consumers and households.

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