Rwanda: Activists Welcome New Policy Position on Informal Marriages

The move by the government to automatically legalize unions of informally cohabiting couples in the country has been welcomed by different people, mainly organisations that advocate for gender equality.

As per the revised national gender policy, despite continuous sensitisation and existing legal provisions that discourage informal unions and the precarious situation under which women in such unions live, the number of couples engaged in such relationships continues to increase.

The revised policy was passed last month by a cabinet meeting and is currently awaiting a ministerial order for it to go into force.

According to figures from by the National Institute of Statistics Rwanda (NISR), 34 per cent of all couples in Rwanda are living in informal unions, meaning that their marriage is not registered at the sector level, as is normally the case.

In some districts, the figures are alarming; for instance, in Nyagatare District, 52.1 per cent of couples are cohabiting informally, while in Nyarugenge District they are 49.9 per cent, according to the fifth Integrated Household Living Survey conducted between 2016 and 2017.

This, according to the government, hinders matrimonial property rights of women mostly, though some scenarios have also shown that some men also suffer the same.

The same predicament is likely to permeate to the children born out of such informal unions.

Among others, the revised policy stipulates that there should be "an option of establishing a certain period of time upon which couples cohabiting in informal monogamous unions might be officially recognized as formally married."

The period which the couple can cohabit to consider them as legally married will be determined by a ministerial order that will be issued by the Minister of Local Government, according to officials.

Fidèle Rutayisire, the Chairperson of Rwanda Men's Resource Centre (RWAMREC) which addresses issues of gender inequality, the amendment will help in addressing gender-based violence.

"As people who are always on the field, what we have found out is that most family conflicts and property-related gender-based violence arise mainly in informal unions whereby a given partner treats the other the way they want because they know that they can chase them any time with no consequence," he explained.

"This clause in the revised policy will help in curbing such violence" he added.

The same view is shared by Rose Rwabuhihi, Chief Gender Monitor at Gender Monitoring Office.

She said: "When people lived together, have children together and acquired assets together, and then later part ways without clear agreement of their union, it leads to conflicts mostly related to how to share assets and take care of their children, hence the need for such policy amendment."

According to Sheikh Suleiman Mbarushimana, the Advisor to the Mufti of Rwanda, formalisation of marriages is advised by Islam.

He said: "This is a commendable move by the government. We also, normally, advise Muslims to formalize their union because when things don't go well in their marriage, the law ensures that all parties including children are treated fairly."

More provisions

Other actions to be undertaken by the gender policy include revising and activating Article 39 of GBV Law on "Legalising unlawful marriages and common assets distribution" by availing the related long-awaited Ministerial Order by the Ministry of Local Government or another specific legal provision.

Normally, when a given couple is going to formalize their union at a given sector, they are given three options related to matrimonial regime, which is mostly relevant when a couple is going to divorce or register a given movable or immovable asset.

One is 'community of property', which grants spouses equal rights and responsibilities to movable and immovable property, and debt acquired prior to and during marriage.

The second one is 'limited community of property', which grants spouses equal rights and responsibilities to movable and immovable property acquired during marriage.

Another marital regime is 'separation of property', whereby each spouse is independent. This implies that a spouse can acquire, manage and use their property without their spouse's consent, and the partner in question is responsible for their own debts.

However, they personally agree on what inputs everyone will be giving when it comes to responding to family needs such as taking care of children and paying rent among other needs.

The revised policy also seeks to ensure mindset shift around social-cultural factors such as the pressure from the society and the family requesting girls to get married living them with limited choice of whom to marry.

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