Recently, a 17-year-old pregnant girl walked to a police station to report that her ‘husband’ had chased her away from her marital home. But instead Police opened up a case of defilement against the man.
According to Police what was intriguing in this case is that if there were no misunderstandings between the couple, it would never have come to the attention of Police, that this was a case of forced marriage involving an underage girl. And this is the biggest hurdle in the fight against forced and teenage marriages in the country. The victims connive with perpetrators until they get misunderstandings.
“We couldn’t in anyway get to know about it, that’s where the challenge comes in,” says Supretendant Belina Mukamana, the director of Anti-Gender Based Violence and child protection at the Rwanda National Police.
Mukamana adds that few such cases are reported to police every month yet research shows that forced/teenage marriages are still many especially in rural areas.
Why would a parent marry off her teenage child in exchange for a sack of cassava? Worse still why would anyone force their daughter into marriage with a man fit to be their father for just a few coins? These are questions that keep coming up every time the debate on forced marriages comes up at conferences.
Research by gender experts indicates that forced marriages are still thriving especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
At the official opening of a conference on child, early and forced marriages in Kigali last week, the problem of forced marriages was cited as something that still exists, especially in the sub-Saharan Africa, including Rwanda.
According to a 2014 UNICEF report, at least seven hundred million girls under the age of eighteen, mainly from sub-Saharan countries, face a threat of being forced into early marriage.
Yvette Muteteri, a mobilisation officer at the National Women’s Council, says that cases of forced marriages in Rwanda, especially in rural areas are mainly caused by poverty in households.
“Sometimes poverty forces parents to give away their little girls for marriage in exchange for small gifts,” Muteteli says.
However, she notes that this is usually their last resort after failing to provide basics like education.
“So for them to look at their child seated at home and eventually get involved in risky sexual behavior and they get pregnant from home, they would rather marry them off and they settle in a marital home,” Muteteli explains.
She says forced marriage of underage girls is illegal.
“The law states clearly that marriage age is 21,” she adds.
Muteteli advises that getting married is not only about age of consent but rather when one is ready and most importantly willing to do so.
Marguerite Uwamahoro, also a women mobilization officer at the National Women’s Council, echoes a similar view saying that a girl should only get married at the right time and in the right way with her consent.
She attributes forced marriages to greedy parents hoping to benefit from their child’s marriage. So they end up giving their daughter to a man twice her age all in the name of wealth.
She also observes that some victims are orphans whose guardians take advantage of.
“Some children are orphans. So the guardians who are usually relatives, push them into forced marriage, sometimes in a bid to take over property from the deceased parents of the children,” Uwamahoro adds.
In a previous interview with The New Times, the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, Madeline Nirere, said that there forced marriages is still a threat in Rwanda despite the fact that there are no concrete statistics.
She however said that there is need for all member states of the Commonwealth to put more effort in gathering reliable statistics on early and forced marriages, for concrete countermeasures against the scourge to be devised.
Pastor Maurice Rukimbira of ST. Etienne Cathedral speaks of the act as something that should not be thought of as an option in anyway, explaining that even if one is of a marrying age, a forced marriage can never be an option.
“It can happen as a result of many things, a girl could get pregnant from home, and in an attempt to save the family’s image, they could end up marrying off the child, this is not right in all ways,
Rukimbira adds that sometimes its cultural norms and religious beliefs of some societies that perpetuate forced marriages.
He explains that marriage is supposed to be sacred and between two consenting adults.
“Marriage is something complicated even those who do it when they are ready don’t have a guarantee of success, so what about a young child who barely has enough experience in life and worst of all married off without her consent,” he says.
Rukimbira adds that the dangers a young girl faces as a result of such are numerous. “I am not a medical expert but I think girls married off at an early age could end up with health problems like difficulty in giving birth.
“I do premarital counseling but if one takes a look at the marital challenges in a home, a young girl can never be in position to handle them, that’s why in such homes girls are abused.”
Police speaks out
According to Supretendant Belina Mukamana, the director of Anti Gender Based Violence and child protection at the Rwanda National Police, marrying off a girl under the age of twenty one is a crime.
She notes that most people are not aware that according to the law, it’s a crime.
She says this explains why such cases are rarely reported adding that in a month only a case or two can be handled.
Mukamana explains that in most instances the cases recorded are those where girls are married off before turning eighteen years but even then they are only reported when the girl is chased away or mistreated by the man.
Then she runs to us and if we find out that she is under 18 years of age, the man is charged with defilement where the man is given a life sentence but if the girl is between eighteen though not yet 21, the penalty is imprisonment of up to two years.
“Recently we handled a case of a 17-year-old. She was pregnant and the man had chased her away, she came to report the man to police. The man is now behind bars for defilement. But if there were no misunderstanding between them, we couldn’t in anyway get to know about it, that’s where the challenge comes in,” Mukamana explains.
She urges the public to report such cases so as to find a way of fighting such practices.
I say: How can we address the challenge of forced marriages?
Many young girls end up into arranged or forced marriages due to family influence. I believe the best way to address this challenge is to sensitize families about the dangers of forced marriages and the negative impact it brings to the victim. Some parents or guardians don’t even know how the person forced into marriage endures a lot of hardships and sometimes agony.
The government needs to take the initiative to find ways and put in places measures to curb this problem. I believe the government can come up with policies restricting forced marriage; some people do it because there are no strict laws and policies regarding this particular matter. The government’s intervention would greatly help to address this challenge.
Mass sensitization campaigns and initiatives can help to address this challenge effectively. Some girls are not aware that forced marriage is against their human rights. Nevertheless, some are ignorant about the consequences of such forced marriages, thus I believe strong sensitization campaigns can help to educate the masses about the problem.
I think one of the reasons some parents still force their children into marriage is to protect perceived cultural or religious ideals. However, they should understand that such cultural or religious principles are outdated in this generation and against human rights. In my opinion, it should be everyone’s calling to fight and address this challenge.
Marriage is supposed to be an avenue of happiness and harmony to the two parties, but a forced one is a challenge to one and at times it may lead into mental and physical health problems, like depression, eating disorders and self-harm. In my opinion, girls should value their lives and Say No to forced marriage—after all they are the ones to swallow the bitter pill that comes with it. Every girl should take it as her sworn duty to fight forced marriages.
The victims of forced marriages should take charge to address the challenge accordingly. For instance, if a person is being forced into marriage, one should report to the authorities because this is against one’s rights and moreover against her will. So in my opinion, I believe the victims should take the initiative and address the challenge of forced marriage.