Noella Nbihogo, GPI
Human Rights

Rwandan Women Trade Rural Poverty for Urban Poverty


Article Highlights

Annonciate Mukeshimana stands outside her home in Kigali with her two children.  

Rwanda has a projected urban migration rate of 4.5 percent for between 2010 and 2015, according to the United Nations.

KIGALI, RWANDA – After a hard year and a poor harvest, Annonciate Mukeshimana decided to sell her belongings, leave her farm in the western village of Busozo, and move to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, in search of a better life.

That was seven years ago, when she was a 25-year-old unmarried orphan scraping out a living as a subsistence farmer, she says. A visit from her cousin sparked her decision to move.

“I realized how she was very well-dressed,” Mukeshimana says. “She had nice and long hair. In few words, I saw that she was very smart, and I wanted to be like her.”

When Mukeshimana asked her cousin to describe life in Kigali, her cousin told her that it was easy to earn money. She offered to escort Mukeshimana to the city.

So Mukeshimana sold her farm and her belongings for 50,000 Rwandan francs ($80). She went to Kigali with a dream of opening a business, meeting a rich man and living in a beautiful house, she says.

“I really thought I was going to become rich,” she says, smiling. “I also thought I would meet a rich man who would love me and marry me. I thought we would build a big, nice house and become rich. These were my dreams as any other girl’s dreams.”

But reality differed from her dreams.

“Men used to ask me for sex, lying that they loved me, that they would marry me,” she says.

She became pregnant twice. Both fathers abandoned her. At 32, she is the single mother of a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.

There is nothing she can do but cope with her situation, she says with a smile. To support herself and her children, she sells fruits and vegetables on the streets of Kigali and earns about 1,000 francs ($1.50) a day.

She cannot return to her village because she has nothing to return to, she says.

“If I go back, how would I live?” she asks. “Even if it is hard here in the city, I can continue my small business.”

She hopes to become rich one day, she says.

Many women who move to the capital in search of a better life must settle for grueling jobs in hostile work environments. Others live in unhygienic conditions. Government officials say that migrants arrive in Kigali unprepared for city life and that women are less able than men to support themselves in urban areas. As the government works to lift migrants out of poverty, some women say they have found financial success.

More than 9 million people, or 85 percent of Rwanda’s population, live in rural areas, according to the government’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy 2013-2018. Rural households are more than twice as likely to be poor than their urban counterparts.

The promise of a better life lures poor residents of Rwanda’s rural areas to its cities. The country’s projected annual urban population growth rate is 4.5 percent for between 2010 and 2015, according to a U.N. country profile on Rwanda. By comparison, the projected annual rural population growth rate is 2.5 percent.

In Rwanda, many girls move from their rural villages to Kigali in order to support their families. After female migrants arrive in the city, they frequently struggle to support themselves in difficult work environments.

Mukeshimana wakes at 5 a.m. and cooks for her children. She then leaves them alone, trusting God to look after them while she works under the hot sun, she says. She spends the entire day walking through Kigali’s residential neighborhoods looking for buyers with a heavy basket of vegetables on her head.

Janvière Mukeshimana, 22, who is unrelated to Annonciate Mukeshimana, moved to Kigali five years ago to find a job that would help her to support her family. Her parents live in poverty in a rural area of southern Rwanda, and she decided to seek job prospects in the capital to support them.

“I came here when I was 17,” she says. “I came joining my aunt, and once I arrived, she found me a job as a maid. And that is what I am doing until this day.”

Currently in her third place of employment, she says former employers mistreated her. She worked for three months without pay at the first house, leaving when neighbors told her that the employer never paid maids. She found a new job with a different family, but her second employers humiliated and abused her.

Now, she works for a financially stable and reliable family. But the work is grueling. She begins at 4:30 a.m. each day to cook, to clean, and to care for the family’s three children, she says.

“It’s not easy at all,” she says. “But I cannot do anything because I need money to improve my parents’ living conditions.”

Although she earns a higher income in Kigali than she would at home, she does not wish to stay. She is saving money to return to her parents’ home and to open a business selling clothing.

In addition to grueling work, poor living conditions plague many of Kigali’s female migrants.

Annonciate Mukeshimana’s one-bedroom house leans so far to one side that it looks as if it will fall, she says.

“The house I am living in is very old,” she says. “Every time, I am scared that one day it will fall on me. When it rains, it rains on me because it leaks a lot. However, I can’t do anything about it. And when I can afford to pay the rent, I pay 7,000 Rwandan francs [$10].”

Janvière Mukeshimana’s second employers subjected her to unhygienic living conditions and a meager diet, she says.

“I was sleeping in the kitchen on a mattress damaged by urine of children,” she says. “The room was full of rats because that’s where they kept food, pans and other items.”

Even when she cooked hearty food such as meat and french fries for the family’s meals, they allowed her to eat only beans or scraps from the previous day’s meals, she says.

They did not treat her like a human being, she says. She eventually left because she could no longer cope with the living conditions.

Government officials say that many migrants arrive in the city unprepared for the challenges of urban living.

Rural people have misconceptions about life in Kigali, says Jean Baptiste Kagaba, the executive secretary of Rugando cell, one of 161 such administrative areas in Kigali.

“Migrants face many problems,” he says. “We have different examples of people who left rural areas. They had their own fields. They used to do farming and to do animal husbandry. But because of rumors from their relatives who live in the city, they think there is money in the city.”

People often arrive without the means to support themselves, he says.

“Houses for rent in Kigali are very expensive,” Kagaba says. “Kigali life in general is expensive compared to rural areas. So they are obliged to rent houses in high-risk zones where they experience a miserable life. They face hygiene-related diseases due to spontaneous habitat.”

Women are particularly vulnerable because they are not suitable candidates for certain professions, such as working as a security guard, he says.

“Have you ever seen a woman watching a house during the night?” Kagaba asks. “Or a woman carrying people’s luggage? These are men’s jobs.”  

Gender stereotypes limit women’s and girls’ options for work.

“Most young girls become sex workers,” he says. “When they come to Kigali, life becomes difficult, and they choose to be prostitutes instead of going back home.”

In Rugando, women and girls require greater governmental support than men do. Many of these women are single mothers who cannot afford to care for their children, Kagaba says.

The local governments of Kigali are responsible for promoting the well-being of their populations, and each does all it can to support its constituents, he says. In Rugando cell, officials advise residents on ways they can improve their lives.

“We help them create cooperatives for their development,” he says. “We sensitize them to register in health insurance to help them get medical services easily. We connect them to donors who support people who want to attend technical and vocational trainings.”

Such trainings enable some people to escape poverty, he says.

Some women say that life in Kigali has lived up to their expectations.

Esperance Uwimana, a 35-year-old mother of two children, left her home in the countryside of southern Rwanda for Kigali eight years ago. Like many other women, she wanted a better life in the capital, she says.

When she arrived, she had little money and began selling ground cassava at a large market. Her business was successful, and she was able to build a new home, she says.

“Personally, the city treated me well,” she says. “It was a blessing to come in the city.”



Interviews were translated from Kinyarwanda.