As par Law governing persons and family of August 2016 in its Article 168, the legal age for marriage is 21 years for both males and females. However, with a small amount of money, you can very easily marry a girl as young as 18, or even below, according to our investigation.
The process is so easy that those who have done it successful actually brag about it when narrating how it all goes. The loophole at the sector level, where marriages are approved, coupled with corrupt officials from village to sector level, lets those involved to continue unhindered.
A two-month investigation by The Chronicles and Radio Isangano based in Karongi district, found girls are easily married off using the same process. Our team confirmed existence of such actions in different sectors of Karongi, Rutsiro and Nyamasheke districts.
With such a pattern taking place in these areas, some officials in the sectors we probed affirmed the same system is obviously also happening in other areas.
Rwanda is divided up into villages, cells, sectors, districts and provinces (including Kigali). The civil registration and notary officer (known locally as “état civil”) at the sector is the one who provides proof to a couple intending to get married. To reach here, you will have first gotten from the cell a document signed on by the cell executive secretary, before a civil union is conducted at the sector. The union is done only by the sector executive secretary.
The civil union forms the first official step, followed up with gusaba (introduction), then the church wedding – culminating ofcourse into the big wedding reception party. The civil union at the sector is usually done days before, a period determined by the brides-to-be.
The system under which underage girls can easily get married is called in Kinyarwanda “Kugura imyaka” (buying age). For it to work, the civil registration and notary officer at the sector should have been in the same position for a considerable period. By virtual of that long stay in that office, they know who to trust in the area.
Explosion of teenage pregnancies
Paul Gasana from Gitesi sector in Karongi district had been married to his new bride for a few months when we met him and his new bride. Her marriage certificate reads 23 years of age, yet her ID reads 19 years. We met and spoke to both of them, but the “bride” was adamant to speak. It took us quite an effort to convince them.
“Here in the neighborhood I currently live, I can bring you 10 couples personally known to me who got married through the same process,” Gasana tells us. We dared him, and indeed proved the existence of these people.
This investigation comes at a time when the entire country is grappling with a growing population of underage girls who are impregnated. According to Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) data, in 2017 alone, 17,337 girls under 18 years were impregnated. The number rose to 19,832 as of December last year.
Eastern province had highest figures, with Nyagatare district recording 1,465 girls raped and they got pregnant. It was followed by Gatsibo district with 1,452 cases. Gasabo district in Kigali had 1,064 girls.
However, there is a huge discrepancy with number of men punished for impregnating the girls. In 2016, for example, 1,355 suspects were reported to Police. The following year, the number increased slightly to 1,480 cases. Last year, the figure also rose to 1,673 suspects.
For 2019, between January and August, some 3,512 cases of sexual abuse have been reported to RIB.
Even if the men in this story decided to marry the young girls “legally”, that does not remove the fact that they are indeed teenage girls.
For you to understand how it is done, we asked Paul Gasana and others we uncovered, to take us through the process and how they managed to beat the system.
The “Process” of getting legal marriage certificate
So how did Paul Gasana do it? “My wife doesn’t know how the process goes, I followed up the process myself,” he said. “For the village head, who doesn’t earn a salary from government, if you can avail them Rwf 5,000 or 10,000, they will give you letter confirming your ID is lost.”
The process is the same in different regions of the country, though those involved are different: – The family of the girl has to be involved. Then the girl reports to the village head that she lost her ID, which she will have got at age 16 years. The village head will give her an official letter identifying her and the parents. This new document from village head will give the new age which allows her to get married.
With this letter, also confirms she is single. She takes it the cell’s executive secretary who grants her the form allowing her to proceed to the sector’s civil registration and notary officer (known locally as “état civil”). At the same time, the man intending to marry her has to also get celibacy form from his cell office. Both the girl and man can now take those two documents to the sector’s civil registration and notary officer, who will usually be known to them.
It is this officer, whom they will have paid at least Rwf 40,000, who approves the marriage forms. As for the cell executive secretary, you part with another Rwf 15,000. These same fake documents are also submitted to the church in which the couple intend to get married.
Once the couple is able to reach the sector level, through the civil registration and notary officer, the process is essentially legal from now on. Even if the civil union marriage certificate is signed on by the sector executive secretary, they will not be aware they are conducting an illegal marriage.
It is virtually impossible that anyone will find out that the documents used for that marriage are fake, neither will anyone bother questioning anything. It will be a marriage like any other. Unless the parents of the girl or man can come out to contest it – which never happens, since they are involved.
“As long as the girl has a document stamped by cell executive secretary which acts as a new ID,” says Gasana, “The civil registration and notary officer, while preparing your marriage dossier, deliberately ignores some things needed to fill. This is because they are in on the deal. The final form is hand-filled by the same officer and thats it!”
According to estimates from different people who have successfully done it, the bribes paid to different people from village to sector, goes up to a total of Rwf 60,000. Such an amount in a rural area is considerable amount of money. Just a handful can readily get it.
‘Commissionaire’ (broker or agent)
In Murunda sector, Rutsiro district, we found Claudine Mukamusoni who is currently 21 years old. In 2017, when she was 19 years, her fiancé and both families tried to “buy age” for her so that she could get married.
The broker of these deals (known locally as commissionaire) asked for Rwf 400,000, which is a lot of money. The family abandoned the project. Yvette and her fiancé are eagerly waiting for next year when she is 22 years so they can tie the knot through the legal process.
For Nyamasheke district, particularly in Bushekeri sector, we found two young men who also tried to marry their underage girlfriends. One them dropped the project because he could not afford the bribes needed. The other says he had completed everything, but the civil registration and notary officer at the sector gave up on the deal. He suspects information may have leaked and the officer opted out.
For all the cases investigated for this story, the process used is almost the same to get marriage certificates and undertake civil marriage at the sector level. What is different is the amount of bribes and people involved.
It is also not the first time allegations of “age buying” have surfaced. It is said to be a very common phenomenon in rural areas as people buy ages for different things including obtaining new ID or passport. However, our investigation is the first time these allegations have been proved.
We asked a random sector official for a standard process for a couple to get civil marriage certificate at the sector. Safari Anastase, the civil registration and notary officer for Gihango sector, Rutsiro district, agreed to detail the process for us.
“First, you have to be 21 years of age. Secondly, if say you are from Gihango sector, you have to avail a celibacy certificate from the cell. Then you pay only Rwf 500.”
He added: “If you registered [residence] from another sector, we will require you to bring your celibacy certificate from that sector.”
For somebody who lost their ID, Safari explains to us what that person has to do: “In case you lost your ID, we ask for a replacement document which you get from cell and take to [Rwanda Investigations Bureau – RIB] for confirmation. From RIB, you bring that form here and we give you a document that temporarily replaces the ID as you wait for a new ID.”
After the couple has been approved by the sector’s civil registration and notary officer, they wait for a day to be approved by the sector executive secretary during a public function attended by family and friends. This stage is called ‘gusezerana’. No other official fees are paid. In some urban areas like in Kigali, the official fee is Rwf 20,000. Paul Gasana and his wife did go on until the final stage of wedding. They are now a happy couple.
We put the issue to the leadership of these districts of Karongi, Nyamaskeke and Rutsiro. It is doubtful that it is only these districts with structural weaknesses in their administration. The issue of ‘buying age’ is across the country.
Rutsiro district mayor Ayinkamiye Emerance said: “Am not aware of the existence of this phenomenon because getting married while you are underage is illegal. If there are cases you have discovered, share with us the information. It is illegal.”
Nyamasheke mayor Mukamasabo Appolonie and Karongi district counterpart Mukarutesi Vestine had not responded to our queries by press time. Nyamasheke’s said in response to our SMS that they had been caught up in meetings.
Important to note is that the girls who have been married off through the above process, will be having their ID which shows their real ages. They will keep it away permanently. It will never be used.
Instead, after getting married, they start process of obtaining a new ID which will have their new age. They need the ID to get more services like health care, registering the baby and all other social services.
We asked one of the underage girls now married why she had to agree to be taken through such a risky process, which if found out, could lead both to jail. She said; “[Everyone] wants to get married….if the process fails you stay put until you reach the age set by government.”
EDITOR: The names of the men and women who got married through this fraudulent process have been changed. We agreed not to identify them in exchange for them to speak freely.
ERRATUM: The civil registration and notary officer of Gihango sector (Rutsiro district) is Safari Anastase, NOT Athanase as it was in previous text. We regret the error.
By Dushimimana Ngabo Emmanuel and Jean de Dieu Ntakirutimana
The story was produced as partnership between The Chronicles and Radio Isangano based in Karongi district, Western Province