“Past were the early years when women were ignorant about their rights. Today we have a say that is why we (women) are able to fight for our rights,” says the district counselor Magret Umukunzi
He randomly picks you in public, puts you on his back, takes you home, you are now his wife. No love proposal, age not an issue. This is a cultural practice, of forced marriage known as Guterura, that used to be practiced in the Nyagatare district, in Rwanda’s eastern province.
This abolished practice of forcing young girls into marriage was mainly practiced in areas such as Rwempasha, Nyagatare, and Matimba to mention but a few.
In Guterura it was mainly young girls below the age of 18 years, who were forced into marriage without their consent or that of their parents. Men depending on their wealth could choose and pick their future brides, by kidnapping them.
Nyagatare is the place that this years International Women’s Day celebrations take place, under the theme, “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls.”
There is a historical and prevailing context to having the celebrations here. Rwandan women have moved a mile from being door mats, to standing out on their own two feet on issues that affect them most. Nyagatare district offers a case study of how far women have come.
Government efforts at dealing with women’s empowerment, including dealing with Gender Based Violence, have meant heavy penalties against negative cultural practices, such as Gutarura.
According to Jane Mababazi in charge of Gender in Nyagatare district, forced marriages (Guterura) are no longer a custom in Nyagatare district and other parts of Umutara.
This custom of forcing young girls into marriage is fading completely. Other forms of violence that is to say, sexual harassment, discrimination and rape, have taken time to eradicate.
Traditionally, in the early years, men were proud of forcing young girls into marriage. Any wealthy young man ready to marry, would find it fun to publicly grab a pretty young girl for a wife.
However the young man would not be safe until he gave away a number of cows requested by the parents of the girl as a penalty.
The young man would be in the position to give away 10 or more cows to the parents of the young girl forced into marriage with out their consent.
Both young men and old men who owned cows were termed as rich. Such men would be capable of marrying as many women as they desired.
This custom of forcing young women and girls into marriages encouraged polygamy. The more cows a man had the better his ability to exchange them for more wives.
The executive secretary of Nyagatare II Kabayiza Faustine says, “The custom of forcing or grabbing young girls for marriage is no longer there. This is due to the punitive measures which were set to protect the young girls.”
Today any person caught in the action forcing a girl child into early marriage, is dealt with accordingly. There’s a judicial system set up to penalize men who force young girls for marriages Kabayiza says.
Illegal marriages are discouraged, any young person man who would love to marry, has to do so legally, says Kabayiza.
Kabayiza adds that the punitive measures are not only against people who force young girls into marriage.
Tough measures are also in place imposed against people who promote other forms domestic violence, against both women and the girls in Nyagatare district.
According to Steve Mudaheranwa Rwamurenzi the coordinator of Nyagatare district, forcing young girls into marriage leads to the spread of HIV/ Aids. This is because there is no HIV testing before getting into that kind of marriage.
In the agreement with the Kabayiza, Mudaheranwa says that there are strict measures that deal with young men who get married illegally.
Regarding the women’s rights Mudaheranwa says that, in Nyagatare today, women know their stand.
Women are no longer silenced, if violently beaten or abused in any form, they are able to report such cases to the authorities without fear. No more stigma in Nyagatare district says Mudaheranwa.
“Past were the early years when women were ignorant about their rights. Today we have a say that is why we (women) are able to fight for our rights,” says the district counselor Magret Umukunzi.