On this year’s Global Day of Parents, I still long to be with my children

In a country that claims to be a champion of women and families, I remain separated from my children due to my political activism.

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza poses for a photo with her husband and three children at the Amsterdam Schiphol airport in the Netherlands before getting on the plane to Kigali in January, 2010. This was the last time she was together with her entire family. [Photo courtesy of Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza]

My country, Rwanda, has long enjoyed a reputation as a nation committed to advancing women’s rights and protecting families. This commitment, however, is deeply selective. Critics of the government, like myself, are routinely deprived of such rights and protections with impunity.

The Constitution of Rwanda explicitly enshrines the state’s responsibility to protect families and to create the necessary conditions for them to flourish. This commitment is institutionalised through the Ministry of Gender and Family, which houses the Directorate General of Family Promotion and Child Protection. This directorate is tasked with devising comprehensive policies aimed at eradicating gender-based violence and safeguarding women and children from domestic abuse and other forms of violence. Some of the policies developed by this directorate have been instrumental in developing Rwanda’s reputation as a champion of women and families.

However, there is a stark disparity between this idealistic policy framework and the reality faced by government critics like myself.

My experiences as a political dissident in Rwanda in the past 14 years paint a grim picture of the selective application of these rights.

Thirty years ago, when a genocide against the Tutsi took place in Rwanda, I was a student in the Netherlands.  As I watched the reports of political upheaval, suffering and death coming from my beloved homeland in horror, I decided to take action and founded a political party named The United Democratic Forces of Rwanda (FDU-Inkingi).

After a long stretch of political activism in the diaspora, I returned to Rwanda in January 2010 to register my party and run for president against incumbent Paul Kagame. I said goodbye to my husband and three children at the Amsterdam Schiphol airport, for what I then believed to be a very short separation.

Sadly, some 14 years later, we remain apart.

My criticism of the Rwandan government’s policies, and my open political aspirations, have led to systemic violations of my civil rights, including my right to a family life.

In March 2010, two months after I arrived in Rwanda, I wanted to return to The Netherlands for my son’s eighth birthday. I had promised to celebrate with him, and I was eager to keep my word. But police stopped me at the airport, telling me that I was not allowed to leave the country due to an impending summons from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which has since been replaced with the Rwanda Investigation Bureau. This was the first in a long series of targeted restrictions aimed at curtailing my freedoms, following my political dissent.

The situation escalated when, in April 2010, I formally requested permission from the prosecutor general to travel to the Netherlands for my son’s first communion, a significant family event. I provided the relevant authorities with specific travel dates. The CID responded by summoning me for interviews on those exact dates, effectively barring me from travelling and attending the ceremony.

By the end of 2010, this political persecution intensified and I was arrested on trumped-up charges including “conspiring against the government by use of war and terrorism” and “genocide denial”. I was subjected to these baseless accusations for daring to participate in Rwandan democracy as a presidential candidate and delivering a speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi urging unity and reconciliation.

In 2012, following a politically motivated trial, the Rwanda Supreme Court sentenced me to 15 years in prison, a decision that led to further violations of my human rights. I had to endure long periods of solitary confinement which were not part of my sentence. I was also only allowed few restricted visits from my relatives which limited my access to social support networks – all practices that stand in stark contrast to Rwanda’s supposed commitment to protecting families and advancing women’s rights.

In 2014, I took my case to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR). After three years of deliberations, the court decided in my favour and acknowledged the infringement of my rights. The 2017 ruling by the African court confirmed that the Rwandan government had breached its international obligations. The court further ruled that the Rwandan government should compensate my family and I for the moral prejudice we suffered during this ordeal. The Rwandan government has refused to acknowledge the AfCHPR ruling to this day. Following the African court’s ruling, and despite being eligible for release, I was kept imprisoned under stringent conditions for an additional year. I was eventually released under conditions, through a presidential pardon, in 2018.

My suffering and that of my family, however, did not come to an end with my release from prison. After being freed, I was subjected to a relentless smear campaign on social media. Many high-ranking Rwandan officials – including ministers, government spokespersons, presidential advisers, ambassadors and members of parliament – publicly accused me of promoting a “genocidal ideology”, “inciting genocide” and waging war against Rwanda and its people. Although blatantly false, these allegations put a target on my back and made me fear for my safety, as well as the safety of those closest to me. These fears were not baseless, as during this period, many of my closest supporters, who had backed my call to establish a genuine democracy and rule of law in Rwanda, were forcefully disappeared, killed and arbitrarily arrested. Though I had no patrimonial relationship with any of them, every single one of these people is family to me, and I remain heartbroken to have been separated from them. The children, wives, parents and other family members of my supporters who have been killed, disappeared or put in jail for daring to demand a more democratic Rwanda are also living in endless sorrow. They, too, have been arbitrarily denied their right to a family life in the state which had promised to protect them.

The presidential pardon that I was granted in 2018 stipulates that I may leave Rwanda with permission from the Ministry of Justice. However, my repeated requests to visit my family in The Netherlands have so far been met with nothing but silence. Over the years, I received a few “acknowledgements of receipt” for my requests, but never an actual answer. I have missed numerous family milestones, including weddings of my children and the births of my grandchildren.

In 2023, I appealed directly to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame on humanitarian grounds and asked for permission to visit my severely ill husband who I have not met for more than a decade. Again, my plea went unanswered. Since then, I once again attempted to restore my civil rights, including my right to free movement, through Rwandan courts, but my application was denied.

Today, as nations around the world celebrate the Global Day of Parents, I remain separated from my children. My story, and those of my supporters who have been targeted in various ways for calling for genuine democracy and rule of law in Rwanda, speaks to the harm parents, and their children, suffer when state mechanisms are wielded to silence, intimidate and punish government critics and human rights activists.

Today, I am not only being denied my right to a family life, but I also remain barred from participating in my country’s elections. This means I am not allowed to participate in the July 2024 presidential election and make my case for genuine democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Rwanda, as a candidate.

The state’s refusal to rehabilitate my political rights, as well as its repeated violations of my basic human rights, including my right to a family life, breach Rwanda’s commitments under the East African Community Treaty, which mandates adherence to the fundamental principles of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

For this reason, I have filed a case before the East African Court of Justice. My aim was not only to secure interim measures allowing me to participate in the upcoming presidential elections, but also to challenge my unjust and heartbreaking separation from my family. This legal action is not just about my rights; it’s about affirming the rights of all individuals who have been similarly victimised. And in the hope that I will be able to celebrate the next Global Day of Parents surrounded by my children.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.