The New Times (Kigali)

29 April 2013

Rwanda: Public Opposes Lowering Marriage Age

Many Rwandans have sound reasons as to why marriage age must remain at 21 and not 18 as proposed in the draft law governing persons and family, Parliament heard yesterday.

Lawmakers on Parliament's Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender were debating the Bill, which seeks to amend the 1988 law to align it with the Constitution, the Penal Code, current realities, and the country's policy on gender equality.

The committee traversed the country gathering public views in 19 districts, including those in the City of Kigali.

Committee chairperson Alfred Rwasa Kayiranga said religious leaders, local leaders, women and youth representatives, and others, all indicated that the proposal is "not acceptable."

"What was clear, in all the districts we visited, is that people highlighted that 18 years are way very low. And people gave several reasons," Kayiranga said, adding that the main concern is the general wellbeing and life of a child produced by a teenage mother.

'Raise it instead'

"We noted that all Rwandans understand the importance of ensuring that all our children have an appropriate education," Kayiranga said. "People indicated that with universal primary education and after primary and secondary school, most children are 18 and if they were married off, it would be equal to destroying their future."

Sylvestre Hitimana, a lawyer from the National Commission of Children (NCC), told the session that NCC was also concerned with Article 166 of the Bill.

The article states that a boy and a girl cannot enter into a marriage contract before attaining the age of 18.

Hitimana said: "Eighteen years of age is just too low. We largely base our position on the fact that in September 2011, government approved a new policy comprising everything to do with a child's rights. For us we actually propose that marriage age could be increased. If it was more than 21, we would be more than happy. 25 years would be okay for us."

He added that in a social context, even though at 18 one is grown up, that person has not attained maturity to manage life's challenges, especially in marriage.

"This is basically one of the reasons why many families are breaking up," Hitimana argued.

Not ready for parenting:

Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe's Suzanne Ruboneka said the 58 organisations under her grouping also have noted with concerns on the proposed lowering of marriage age.

The organisations argue that there should be no differentiating between a boy and a girl when it comes to marriage age, resulting in a constitutional contradiction.

"At 18, a child in the village or in an urban locality in our society, is still an adolescent who is in plain transformation, and not even stable when it comes to decision-making. There is no doubt that such a child can give birth, after all, even at 14, one can give birth. However, when it comes to marriage, please understand that this is not only about giving birth. It is also about bearing children and caring for them," Ruboneka said.

She warned against being influenced by practices in some countries, saying what is being done elsewhere does not necessarily mean it could be good for Rwanda.

Emmanuel Ntambara, from the Ministry of Youth and ICT, said he did not entirely understand the idea of slashing marriage age.

"Apart from the issues my colleagues have raised, let's also consider the economic perspective. Has there been research to indicate that at 18, in this country, one is able to handle the economic needs of raising a family? A family has to survive. There are welfare issues to consider," Ntambara said.

Others including Unicef's Francois Mugabo, Sylvie Uwimbabazi, from the Ministry of Education, Jephthat Uwayo, from the Ministry of Health, and Christine Tuyisenge, from the National Women's Council also objected to slashing marriage age.

Jean Pierre Kayitare, the assistant Attorney General in charge of Legislation Drafting Services in the Ministry of Justice, told the session that government initiated the proposal to slash marriage age after considering significant issues highlighted in a 2005 study.

However, legislators and civil society representatives challenged the study's findings as outdated as it was conducted eight years ago.

The officials also had other various views on the Bill, including divorce, and dowry which many said should be a separate cultural aspect that should not be included in the legislation.

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