13 women sit outside HAGURUKA offices in Remera district, Kigali city on one cold morning. They need legal assistance to solve problems which hinder their everyday life. If they wait long enough, they might get it.
In the years since the genocide of 1994, scenes such as this are becoming more frequent in Rwanda .
Various organisations offer legal aid to those most in need. For example, Haguruka, IBUKA, and the Rwanda Bar Association whose services are in great demand.
Hardly surprising if you consider that according to the World Bank, there has been a 50% increase in the number of women-headed households in Rwanda , from 1991 to 1998. In total; latest statistics suggest that some 34% of Rwandan homes are run by women.
Equally alarming, the UN says forty two thousand households are managed by children, over one hundred thousand youngsters in all.
Worst of all, the UN’s poverty reduction research shows 60% of Rwandans live below the poverty line.
One of the people trying to get by, in these hard times, is Anna Maria Bawugirira. Anna Maria is fighting for financial compensation from Kigali Central Hospital , saying they buried her deceased daughter Janviere Yankurije without her knowledge or consent. “ This pain is tearing me a part. My daughter is survived by 2 little children and the sad part is that they are still asking me whether their mother is still in hospital. Relatives and friends have spent days at the funeral waiting for the dead body. I don’t know whether this grief will go away”, Bawugirira lamented.
The Hospital argues three points in return. First, that Anna Maria did not provide for her daughter’s funeral. Second, that the hospital’s own budget is too small to cover funeral costs. Third, that if such costs are not paid by individual patients or their family, and then the hospital has a right to minimize risk to its own financial survival, by taking appropriate alternative measures, such as burying Janviere Yankurije in the hospital cemetery.
Management at Kigali Central Hospital say they see cases like Maria’s every day. “We tried to contact her before we could make the final decision but she did not come and only arrived at the hospital 10 days later. Considering the size of our hospital and capacity of the fridge in the mortuary we can’t keep the body for more than 3 days and our fridge can only handle six bodies at a time. We have to bury those that over stay to create room for others”, says the Director of Kigali Central Hospital, Emmanuel Kayibanda.
Anna Maria Bawugiria says she failed to bring the money because she depended on Janviere income, to run the household. When her daughter fell ill and stopped working, the money stopped. But the medical bills started. When Janviere Yankurije died, they stood at two hundred and eight thousand Rwandan Francs. That’s about three hundred and sixty US dollars. “I want some one to defend me. I came here to seek legal help. Those people had no right of dumping my child wherever they thought fit, when I was trying to find their money”, adds Bawugirira.
Anna Maria says she wants justice. But Benoit Kaboyi says justice is not enough. He helps genocide survivors and other vulnerable groups to access judicial assistance. He’s the Coordinator of IBUKA, a genocide survivors association based in Kigali . Benoit says survivors are a special category, and deserve a bit more than justice. “Penalising the offender is not an end in itself, when people suffer any form of injustice, they loose their dignity, confidence and many times they do not have a future to look forward to. Justice can’t fully be achieved without compensation. The offended needs some form of rehabilitation for justice to be fully reached”, says Kaboyi.
13 year old Samuel Ntibagirwa lost his father 3 years ago. His mum was left disabled after the genocide. Then his uncle sold the land where the family had been living. Samuel, his mum, his sister and his two brothers were left to fend for themselves. “I and my 3 siblings have to struggle everyday because our mother was left handicapped during the genocide. Even though she is alive she can not do anything for us. We are trying to find a way to reclaim our land”, tells Ntibagirwa.
One group that might be able to help is HAGURUKA. Like IBUKA, HAGURUKA provides legal aid, but focuses on women and children. “Between 1997 and 2003 we handled 28,000 cases, some of the cases were concluded but others are yet to be concluded. On average we see 4000 cases annually”, says the National Cordinator of HAGURUKA Rose Mukantabana.
If Rose and her colleagues at Haguruka are limited by lack of funds, some clients of some survivors’ associations are frustrated, by what they see as a lack of action and results.
Nikuze says she’s been fighting to get her land back, since before the genocide of ‘94. “Imagine an old woman like me with orphans to look after. I have no job, no land to cultivate and I am being forced out of the house where I live. I have been coming here for so long but my case has not been concluded. This time if my case is not addressed I will seek help from higher authorities”, says Nikuze.
On the other hand, clients like Jacinta Fayida feel that survivors’ organisations are a godsend.
She is 39 and living with AIDS. In 1990 she was working as a maid when she gave birth to her daughter, Aline Mutuyimana, who is now fourteen years old.
Jacinta says the man who fathered her child was imprisoned for genocide related crimes but escaped and fled to neighbouring Uganda . Since then she has not been able to get any help from him or his family. “ From the time the father of my child disappeared, his relatives have not supported me in any way. He even has a house in Kabuga but my child has been denied rights to it. And as you can see my days are numbered. I don’t know what will happen to my child when I am gone” tells Jacinta who was infected in 1996 while serving a prison sentence. “We were 6 women in the prison cell and prison guards raped us repeatedly. I think that is when I got the virus”, she remembers.
Jacinta was cleared of genocide charges and released. She says she doesn’t want to press charges against the Rwandan prison guards who allegedly raped her
What she wants is a secure future for her daughter Aline, starting with rights of ownership to her father’s house. Because he’s not living in it, he’s still hiding in Uganda . Aline says that’s a vital point. “I am worried about my mother’s health and I don’t where I will go after she dies. I just hope and pray that God will take care of me” tells Jacinta’s daughter, Mutuyimana Aline .
It seems there are thousands of cases like this in Rwanda . Usually, each one requires a different approach.
“Some cases are solved through the advice we give to our clients. In other cases we have to accompany them to the local authorities where we help our clients to state their complaints in a clearer manner, because sometimes they have a case but can’t argue it out. In more serious cases we have to hire lawyers to represent our clients in court”, says Christine Tuyisenge the person in charge of legal affairs in Haguruka
In 1997 the Rwanda Bar Association established a bureau to provide legal assistance to socially vulnerable people. It offers legal advice, or if necessary, a lawyer for people who can’t afford to hire one. It seems the word is spreading fast. “When we started not many people were aware that we had these services but over the years more and more people have come to know about what we do. The challenge for our office at this point is that sometimes we do not have enough funds to facilitate our advocates in their work. We do not pay them to represent poor people but then we need funds to meet their logistical requirements like transport, phone bills, and lodging whenever they have to wok away from home”, the president of the bureau for legal assistance in the bar association, Jean Bosco Rusanganwa highlighted.
Despite the unique context and challenges of Rwanda ‘s post-genocide society, it is not alone with these kinds of problems.
Delegates from other post-conflict countries in the region met recently in Kigali, to talk about how best to lobby together, for justice all round. They say they want Governments to do more to help socially vulnerable people. They want clear and effective mechanisms for poor people to solve their problems. “We want to raise awareness on the plight of socially vulnerable groups especially women and children. We organised this meeting in a bid to share experiences with our counterparts from different countries which have gone through times of conflict and come up with more effective measures to address the issue of justice for vulnerable groups”, says Rose Mukantabana, National Coordinator of Haguruka.
There’s an old saying: united we stand. For the thousands of poor, dispossessed, and vulnerable people in Rwanda , it’s a nice theory. But practical results seem to be what they really want and the sooner the better.