Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

RIGHTS-RWANDA: Marriage by Abduction Worries Women’s Groups

Jean Ruremesha

NYAGATARE, Rwanda, Oct 7 2003 (IPS) - Judith Kanzayire, a 29-year-old mother of three children from northern Rwanda, admits that she was the victim of ‘marriage by abduction’. “What can you do? It’s the tradition here. We have no choice but to accept it,” she says.

When asked if she is happy with her life and if she has learned to love her husband, she laughs out loud. “I’m his wife, and that’s the end of it,” she replies.

Kanzayire seems to have experienced a better outcome than many other rural women in her situation.

One third of all unions created through kidnapping end up with the man abandoning his wife, which he is able to do since he holds absolute power in the relationship. And, to the chagrin of rights groups, women, who have been dumped by their husbands, have a very slim chance of remarrying. In the end, their families have no choice but to accept such marriages, if they work.

A girl, who has spent several nights with a man, is from then on a woman that no other man will marry. The marriage is regularised several days later during a brief ceremony where the prospective son-in-law asks his in-laws to pardon him for having ‘stolen’ their daughter. As a gesture of new relationship, he offers them a cow, and the deal is washed-down with some banana or sorghum beer.

Umutara, a province in northeast Rwanda, with a population of 300,000, no longer keeps count of marriages by abduction, a custom which continues to prevail in this pastoral area. Local authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have condemned the practice.

But everyone in Umutara considers such marriage to be customary and their suppression as an attack on tradition. These kinds of kidnappings occur almost daily.

If a girl – usually between 16 and 22 years of age – is considered to be a ‘good catch’ returns home alone from the market, or farm, she could be kidnapped by a group of youths and taken to the nearby hillside home of a man she barely knows. Along the way, she is beaten up and usually raped by each of the youths in order to break her resistance.

This is a risky practice in a country where more than half a million people, out of a population of 7.5 million, live with HIV/AIDS.

These abductions, as well as consummation of the marriage, are not given special status and are punishable by law as rape. They carry prison sentences of up to 20 years, under Rwanda’s 1998 law.

However, this law has never been tested because no one has ever pressed charges. “When we hear about abduction, we hunt down the kidnappers and arrest them and sometimes the husband, too. But we’re forced to let them all go several days later,” says an official at the criminal investigation department in Nyagatare, the capital of Umutara.

Women’s rights groups believe that a crackdown alone will not eradicate this ancient practice. A crackdown, they say, must be accompanied by public education and awareness campaigns in order to have teeth.

Efforts have been made to promote gender equality so that small farmers respect women’s and girls’ rights. Local organisations have increased the frequency of their field visits to combat the custom of marriage by abduction.

“We regularly organise public education sessions to illustrate and explain the harmful effects of this type of marriage,” explains Anita Nyirabera from Hagurka, a non-governmental organisation.

In addition to the cruelty carried out during the abduction, and the culture of dependence on the husband that the wife must endure, few men care to legalise such a union. For the rest of their lives, the women carry the status of concubines and their offspring are considered illegitimate.

To most farmers, and the women themselves, marriage by abduction is quite normal. To them, no one has provided good reasons to end this custom, which seems anchored in tradition since the dawn of time.

Even young people, from poor background, seem to prefer marriage by abduction, given the high cost of legal marriage. To marry legally, one must possess at least 200,000 Rwandan francs (about 400 U.S. dollars), including the cost of dowry and other expenses. “If I hadn’t abducted my wife, I’m sure I would never have been able to marry,” says Charles Rutabayiru, who abducted his wife several years ago.

In a region where most people live off subsistence agriculture, some girls too prefer to be kidnapped than to wait around forever for a husband who may never come. This is a region where 90 percent of the people never dream of saving more than 2,000 Rwandan francs (about four U.S. dollars) per month, and where bachelorhood is considered a curse for men, and even more for women, of marrying age.

The high cost of bride price is also worrying some city dwellers. “Very soon, the so-called free unions in our cities will no longer be that different from traditional marriages,” observes Ferdinand Murara, a journalist in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

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