Academic journal article Africa

Child Marriages in Rwandan Refugee Camps

Academic journal article Africa

Child Marriages in Rwandan Refugee Camps

Article excerpt

One of the things that attracted my attention while working in the Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania was the marriages of very young adolescents: girls as young as 13-14 married boys of 14-15 years, boys they often did not even know. The marriages did not usually last very long; after a few months many girls were forced to leave--sent away by their husband. People of both sexes and of all ages, when asked about the problems in the camp, would always mention these child marriages as one of the biggest problems. They were worried about the loss of respect for Rwandan culture and traditional values, but also about the future of the marriages and what would become of the children.

Already in October 1994 a camp newspaper, Muracyabaho,(1) had warned young girls not to sleep with or marry boys or men they do not know, as such men would bring diseases, or make them pregnant, then leave them. In 1995 an NGO`s refugee theatre group performed a play which warned against these child marriages. On the other hand, it is easy to see why young people, especially girls, would get married in the refugee camps. Many of them were on their own, had lost their relatives, and saw in marriage a--perhaps the only--possibility of starting a new life, of finding someone to live with and not be alone any more, and of being protected. For the girls, economic reasons played a role as well, as life in the camps was very hard, and having a husband meant having someone to look after you.

The contrast with my previous research(2) among Burundese refugees was striking: there I also saw an increase in marriages among young people, but not as extreme or uncontrolled as in the camps in Tanzania. Furthermore, the Burundese marriages appeared to be more serious and stable. This may have been due to a lower level of breakdown or disruption of society compared with Rwanda; people probably had more hope of the future, of finding relatives and being able to continue their lives as before.

In the literature I have not been able to find any references to child marriages in other refugee camps, so for this article I depend only on my own information. It is not based on extensive research into child marriages, but I have been able to interview a number of young people who got married in the camps, and to collect information and the views of other people on these and other instances of marriage. Rather than describing marriage customs and wedding ceremonies in Rwanda, and comparing them with what took place in the refugee camps, the aim of the article is to show the impact of (civil) war, the consequent poverty and the destruction of social structures on a community, in order to show how in these circumstances behaviour can be radically changed. Refugees have to build a new life in a camp, and their new `society` is likely to be different from the one they came from, with different rules and changed values (cf. Kabera and Muyanja, 1994: 101-3). Child marriages are a good example of changed behaviour, however temporary the change may be, vis-a-vis women, relationships and marriage. Though I noted other examples of deviant behaviour, child marriages were the most remarkable.

In this introduction I will sketch the most important features of marriage customs in Rwanda. The second part of the article will give a short overview of the recent history of Rwanda and the camps. It will look into the economic life and social structure of the refugee camps in order to give some background to the case studies that follow. In the third part we focus on the refugees.

A note, first, on the methods of research. From May 1994 to May 1995 I was working for Medecins sans Frontieres--Holland (MSF) in the refugee camps of Benaco, Msuhura, Lumasi and Lukole(3) in Ngara, Tanzania, where the total refugee population was around 500,000. Part of my work was medical anthropological research to collect data for the setting up of a psycho-social programme for traumatised refugees. …

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