February 22, 2021

Government Moves to Legalize All Unregistered Couples Living Together

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In bid to encourage couples in unofficial unions, such mass civil unions are regularly conducted in different parts of Rwanda

Government intends to change all laws that categorize civil unions as the only legally acceptable marriages, in bid to protect women access to property.

In new gender policy approved by cabinet on Friday last week, government also wants a change in the terminology of “informal unions/marriages” used on couples that live together without the official record usually provided at the sector level in a process known as “gusezerana”.

There, the prospective couple sign some form of marriage contract that determines, among other issues, the ownership of property. It is followed up the wedding ceremonies, if the couple wish and are able.

Article 17 of Rwanda’s Constitution of 2015 recognizes only civil monogamous marriage between a man and a woman as the only parties to this marriage with equal rights and duties during the subsistence of a marriage and at the time of divorce. As a result, over the years, all the existing laws and gender policies have been modeled to corroborate this constitutional provision.

The only legal provision that mentions the category of informal unions is Article 39 of Gender-Based Violence Law on “Legalizing unlawful marriages and common assets distribution”. Government now admits that this article alone has “proved insufficient to effectively ensure secure property rights for all women living in informal monogamous”.

Survey data by the National Institute of Statistics shows that 34% of couples live together without ‘gusezerana’. In some districts, the figures is much higher, for example 49.9% in Nyarugenge (urban Kigali) and 52.1% in Nyagatare, eastern Rwanda. In the new policy, government calls this state of affairs “alarming”.

Part of the reason for this high number of the so called ‘informal unions’, says government, is the “resistance of men in informal unions to formalize their unions.”

With this situation, say the authorities, it is the women that end up suffering more of the consequences. Now, the government wants these so called “informal marriage” to be called “consensual or de-facto unions” in the laws.

“Though a lot has been done to insure matrimonial property rights of all citizens, the legal framework has so far proved insufficient to effectively ensure secure rights for women living in informal unions,” says the government’s new policy paper.

Among ideas the government plans to implement is setting a timeframe after which the union of couples living together for a given period, their relationship automatically becomes a legally binding marriage.

Just for illustration, for example, it could be stated that once a couple has lived together for 10 years, then their union is legally binding.

A report by the Africa Land Policy Centre released in December 2019 showed that only Rwanda and five other African countries were on course to towards securing land rights to at least 30 per cent of their women by 2025.

Women on the continent, the report said, are not adequately represented nor do they meaningfully participate in land governance processes as women are typically not considered as the public face of the family and land administration is a public activity.

In 2017, African governments adopted a resolution to grant documented land rights to at least 30 per cent of their female populations by 2025.

Going forward, here are the proposals due for implementation about the issue in the new Rwanda gender policy.

  • Elaboration of new laws and review of existing ones in regard to informal unions taking into account Rwanda’s socio-cultural context.
  • Continue sensitization on the benefits of registration marriages as the best options of spousal relationships and on changing mind set around social cultural factors such the pressure from the society and the family requesting girls to get married living them with limited choice of whom to marry.
  • Revise and make effective Article 39 of GBV Law on “Legalizing unlawful marriages and common assets distribution” by availing the related long-awaited Ministerial Order by Ministry of Local Government or another specific legal provision.
  • Review the definition of such informal unions/marriages from unlawful as stated in most of the existing legal framework to informal; consensual or de-facto unions.
  • Explore the option of establishing a certain period of time upon which couples cohabiting in informal monogamous unions might be officially recognized as formally married considering the pull factors that are mainly beyond the control of women and girls, and the resistance of men in informal unions to formalize their unions.

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