Legislators debate proposal to slash marriage age to 18

Legislators on Political Affairs and Gender committee are wrapping up a nationwide consultation on the Bill governing persons and family, before tackling amendments in the 1988 law, which are meant to align it with the Constitution and current realities.
Groooms take marriage vows in Kayonza recently.  Governemnt is  proposing an amendment to slash marriage age from 21 to 18 years. The New Times/File.
Groooms take marriage vows in Kayonza recently. Governemnt is proposing an amendment to slash marriage age from 21 to 18 years. The New Times/File.

Legislators on Political Affairs and Gender committee are wrapping up a nationwide consultation on the Bill governing persons and family, before tackling amendments in the 1988 law, which are meant to align it with the Constitution and current realities.

MPs have traversed 16 districts [out of the targeted 19] in the four provinces, to consult the population because, according to MP Alfred Rwasa Kayiranga, the Chairperson of the Committee, people’s views will, “without doubt,” be decisive.

One proposed amendment is slashing marriage age from 21 to 18 years.

Kayiranga said, “It is clear that the general view is that 21 years should be maintained considering the standpoint of having children continue with higher education so that they can later be able to compete effectively.”

He added; “What is in the Bill is just a proposal. Things can change! We shall put all views and these other issues into consideration when discussing the Bill.”

There is also a sense of unease over the proposal’s possible impact on the country’s population dilemma. Some fear it could jeopardise the family planning campaign championed by Parliament.

Genesis

The suggestion, according to Jean Pierre Kayitare, the assistant Attorney General in charge of Legislation Drafting Services in the Ministry of Justice, is due to the fact that the Ministry of Justice is overwhelmed by continuous applications from people under 21, requesting ‘special’ marriage approvals.

Between July and December 2012, the minister received about 40 applications.

“Those are just from the very few people who are aware that they have to make the request, and are as well able to. Others deep there in rural areas don’t bother coming to Kigali. You can imagine what the real situation is,” Kayitare said on Monday.

Seven years ago, the ministry contracted the Faculty of Law in the National University of Rwanda (NUR), to conduct a countrywide study about marriage age.

Its 2005-2006 report, among others, suggested that given the hardships experienced as a result of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, “children in Rwanda turned out to be very responsible adults even before reaching 18 because of the difficulties of life they went through,” Kayitare said, reading from a section of the report.

“The report indicates that many doubted the logic of 21 years as marriage age – the penal code has 18 as age for criminal liability, and the labour code recognizes age of 16. People highlighted this discord,” Kayitare said.

“If there were, in reality, responsible family heads at 14 years of age, why wait till one is 21 to permit marriage yet the truth is that at a younger age, people are already mature enough and responsible? Under the civil code, when under 21, one cannot be allowed to sign any contract – be it in business or marriage. This is a big issue!”

Public reaction

Aimable Nkuranga, a father, is among those in the public well acquainted with the trend set by the consequences of the Genocide.

Nkuranga said: “As a parent, I would maintain 21 as a marriageable age. However, you can’t ignore the fact that many orphans have problems in host families and would welcome the opportunity for founding their own homes early. Just as we lowered majority age for one to engage in business, to 16, I wouldn’t be against 18 as a marriageable age.”

Emmanuel Mugisha said: “Family and social responsibility is what awaits both males and females in marriage. Physical maturity at 18 does not necessarily mean character and intellectual maturity! My worry is not the age factor but the perception people carry when planning to get married. Age won’t save us from social problems resulting from unhealthy marriage relationships. Even at 40, people are failing!”

Annick Rudakemwa, a mother, is of the view that at 18, a boy or a girl is still in school and should remain there, if they have the means to.

“You need life experience before decisions like these are made. Here, we need to be really careful and have a look at our culture and context. I am sure that all Rwandans don’t share the same view on this. I am worried that if the age of marriage is put at 18, students will drop out of school,” she said.

Demographic and health surveys conducted in the region lend credence to the belief that education is the number one factor that will influence when women get married and when they start bearing children. Early marriage is, among others, linked to higher maternal mortality.

Marriageable age varies with countries, but it is generally set at 18 and some countries allow marriage at slightly younger age with parental and/or judicial approval, or in case of pregnancy.

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