Single Mothers


I explore the question: What does it mean to be a mother?

As I was raised in an orphanage, I never had the chance to meet my mother. In August 2019, I set out to ask women the real meaning of being a mom. I talked with single mothers, young mothers and experienced mothers. Of particular interest to me were single mothers, as they have had a history of being ostracized in Rwandan culture. This series is made up of intimate portraits of single mothers in their homes and their own words about their life and parenting experiences. This photo essay gives an insight into motherhood in Rwanda today.

This is part of a bigger project on women and motherhood where I interviewed every type of mother: single mothers, young mothers, experienced mothers, grandmothers and women who didn’t have children. In Rwandan culture, single mothers are considered an outcast, pariah, or viewed as someone who rejects cultural values and dignity because they have sex before marriage. Rwandans historically have placed the value of a girl or woman based on the dowry that her fiancé or husband provides to the woman’s family. A dowry could be a cow, or more common today, is money.

For a woman who has had a child out of wedlock, it becomes very difficult for her to marry in the future. For single mothers, often her family and society lose hope of her family getting a dowry and she is treated poorly by her family and community. Often, single mothers are viewed as prostitutes, even though the circumstances around her pregnancy could have been caused by rape, an accidental pregnancy or the abandonment or death of a partner.

Single mothers are often treated as someone who lost her dignity and even her parents and siblings lose respect or view her as not intelligent. In year’s past, families would send their unwed pregnant daughters to the islands in Lake Kivu or throw the women in rivers to drown because the Rwandan community felt that single mothers had no value. Other families would send their daughters away to another village or country to live as in deceit as a divorced woman. Many single women face additional challenges such as other men taking advantage of their vulnerable situation. Dangerous circumstances can arise with other men who may not treat them well, in hopes the men can help provide for their children. Many Rwandan men however, are taught throughout their life, to not get involved or marry a single mother.

During the coronavirus pandemic, single mothers have suffered even more hardship from businesses closing and strict security measures put in place which has caused even more of a financial crisis for them and their children. Many single mothers have had to depend on the support of the fathers’ of their children or the support of their parents to help feed their children. These families often see these women and their children as a burden. Sadly, some men also take advantage of the dire economic situation of these women and force them into sexual relationships they women may not want. The women struggle with the reality of this difficult situation and many feel they are not able to refuse because their children need to be fed.

Story & images by Jean Bizimana
Price - GBP 250