ANNONCIATA NYIRABAREKEZI

The Legal Aid Forum, in partnership with Oxfam and with the financial support of DFID, implemented a project entitled Citizen Monitoring of the Justice Sector in Rwanda which was designed to assess the current framework of interaction between justice institutions and citizens using feedback collected from citizens through ICT, and suggest possible actions for improvement. The project was developed to increase the responsiveness of Rwanda’s justice services towards the concerns of citizens, especially women, regarding the provision of justice services.

Enumerators collected responses from 5, 503 respondents from all 30 districts in Rwanda. The results of this survey showed that Rwandans, in general, provided positive feedback on the legal aid services they have received. However, there are still some areas to be improved.

This is the story of Annonciata. She lives in Nyiraruhuha village, Nyamugari Cell, Ntemba Sector, in Burera District, in the Northern Province. Annonciata is involved in a family dispute with the father of her children. 

Annonciata’s battle for justice

Annonciata was traditionally married and she shared a home with her “husband”. The couple had three children together. Without warning, Annonciata’s husband kicked her out of the house. She moved out, and went to live at her parent’s home. Annonciata’s husband was asked to pay a compensation fee because he removed her from their marital home without giving her any means to support herself. When he was unable to pay, he asked her to move back into their marital home. However, during the time that Annonciata lived with her parents, her husband had “married” another woman. Annonciata’s husband lived in a house with his new wife and she lived with her children in a separate house. The living situation was unbearable and she was forced to leave the home.

Annonciata reported her grievances to the village authorities. The village authorities decided in her favor and found that her husband did owe her access to their shared property and land. Annonciata’s husband rejected this decision and the matter was taken to an Abunzi committee for mediation. The Abunzi committee also decided in favor of Annonciata and awarded her husband to give Annonciata her share of their communal property.

In order to protect his property, Annonciata’s husband went to the Sector offices to formally marry his new “wife” under a regime that would grant his new wife the rights to the property. Annonciata discovered his plans to transfer the property to his new wife and sought an enforcement formula stamp on the mediated order granting her ownership of her property, in order to enable enforcement of the judgment.

Even with an enforceable judgment, Annonciata’s husband refused to give her any of the property to which she was entitled. He claimed that ownership of his property was transferred to his new wife, even though the Abunzi judgment contradicted this.

The case was then tried in court: first in the Primary Court and then in the higher court as Annonciata’s husband continued to appeal decisions in her favor. Annonciata received a great deal of support from local leaders with her case, but despite this, justice was still not served.

Eventually, Annonciata’s husband was arrested for contempt of court for refusing to abide by the judgment. In the chaos and confusion of Annonciata’s husband’s arrest, his new wife was also arrested but later released and ordered to pay a fine. Annonciata’s husband and his new wife eventually gave her the property to which she was entitled.

Annonciata spent six long and grueling years fighting for her rights.

Spousal support in Rwanda

The data shows that Annonciata’s case was unusual because of the amount of time it took to be resolved. Nationally, paternity determination and spousal/child support cases took an average of 478 days to resolve. Specifically, in the Northern Province where Annonciata lives, these types of cases took about 346 days to resolve. Furthermore, Annonciata’s case and others like it are not very common in Rwanda. The data reveals that about 8% of all cases nationally involved paternity determination or spousal/child support while in the Northern province that figure drops to 7%.

The case was further complicated by the fact that Annonciata and her husband were not in a formal marriage. Rwanda has strict laws in place to ensure that spouses are protected. The Law Governing Persons and Families has specific rules about the regimes under which marriages may be formed and the rules governing property under each regime. Nonetheless, Annonciata’s rights were protected and she was able to claim her property.

Recommendations

As a result of cases like Annonciata’s, LAF recommends the following:

  • A strong supervision and monitoring framework needs to be put in place to ensure timely and effective enforcement of court and Abunzi decisions. Enforcement of judgments should be included as a part of the performance agreements of non-professional bailiffs and should be evaluated during performance reviews.
  • A certificate of indigence should be created to be used only to receive legal aid services. The Sector Executive Secretaries should be made aware of the requirements for a citizen to receive this certificate for legal representation and be authorized to assess each case to be able to provide such a certificate for legal aid services only. This limited certificate should reflect the awareness of conditions that may make a citizen eligible for free legal aid services even though their ubudehe category may be above category two. This certificate will not be valid for any use other than receiving legal aid services.
  • More training is needed for Cell and Sector Executive Secretaries on enforcement of court judgments, especially on seizure and auctioning procedures.
  • Additional staff should be hired to assist in the enforcement of judgments. The additional staff should support the current enforcement staff which is overworked and unable to enforce judgments in a timely way. However, if this is not possible, the Civil Status Officer should be granted the ability to work as a non-professional bailiff and enforce judgments.