The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Forced Marriages Common in African Conflicts - Researchers

IN the past two decades, the African continent has experienced violent civil conflicts that have taken a toll on the socioeconomic development of the affected states.

However, the biggest losers could be the women who were abducted and raped by rebels in the conflicts. Some of the women have been held against their will and forced into marriages, revealed a research conducted on the prolonged conflict that affected Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo which was launched in Nairobi on Thursday.

In exchange for the marriage, the women normally get protection from the rebels as well as food and shelter, said researchers.

They said it is one of the forms of violence perpetrated against women alongside rape, losing land and as well as witnessing families' members being killed.

It not only violates international human rights laws as well as many national domestic laws, some scholars also regard forced marriages as another form of sexual slavery.

Canadian-based York University Professor of Socio-legal Studies Annie Bunting was the author of the report.

She said that fighting soldiers normally need the women for sex, labour, taking care of children, cultivating as well as supporting the strategy for war. Her 3-year study on forced marriages found that these unions are also not recognised under African customary laws.

In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), who fought the government in Northern Uganda for over 20 years, used forced conjugal associations in their armed conflicts.

The LRA are said to have developed a system to force the kidnapped women to act as wives for the soldiers. They also played a critical role in boosting the morale of the militias.

Sierra Leone was engulfed in a ten-year bloody civil war between 1992 and 2002. The kidnapped women were enlisted in order to provide labour to fight government troops.

In Liberia, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released indicated that gender based violence, including forced marriages was a common practice.

In addition, children born in these marriages were later taken from the women after the end of the conflict. The women and girls often experienced difficulties in getting the society to accept them back into their societies.

She added that activists and survivors or gender violence are themselves at risk. However, the treatment of children born in captivity varied from country to country.

In some of the conflict countries, they were fully embraced by the militias, while in some they were considered as outcasts.

Bunting said that in order to discourage such practices, the rebels who perpetrate the crimes should be subject to criminal sanctions. "You have to uphold the commanders responsible so as to act as deterrence for future crimes," she said.

However, during the Genocide in Rwanda, cases of forced marriages were few probably due to the relatively short duration of the conflict.

Director of the British East African Institute Dr Ambreena Manji said that victims of gender violence should get reparations.

In Sierra Leone, over 230 women survivors have received direct financial benefits while another 650 were trained in various skills. The UN General Assembly in October 2005 emphasised the need for reparations if human rights are violated.

Manji added that international community is now focusing on this new crime. "In order to prevent history from repeating itself some form of compensation to victims are necessary," he said.

The authorities of post conflict nations should therefore consider reparations both for communities and individual victims. Kenya's Kisii University College Law lecturer Wycliffe Otiso said that forced marriage is prevalent in conflicts due to certain factors.

"Rebels in wars normally wield a lot of power and therefore have a chance of abducting women. There is therefore need to put in place legal mechanisms so as to bring justice to victims," he said.

Xinhua

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