Rwanda's Bitter-Sweet Marriages

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Solène, 25, is one those Rwandan girls who have drunk  so many cups of fresh cattle milk- inshushyu that her skin has the natural glow of the water that trickles from a rock. A nurse at Plateau Clinic has confirmed her worst nightmare – that she is pregnant.  This sudden announcement has taken the shine off her beautiful face; her lovely fair complexion has darkened. She can’t call her family just yet and instead dials her best friend’s number.

Solène atendeka (double dates) two men. The one she is really in love with is not her official boyfriend. The one she truly loves is a friend from high school. She couldn’t date him simply because his faded jeans and humble background wouldn’t sit well with her family. He would also be a source of ridicule from her friends. ‘Have you seen the loser Solène is dating?’ They would whisper behind her back.

These reasons pushed her to say yes to Joe, her “cover” for seven months now. Solène despises his rich man’s arrogance, his disdain for the poor, his pretentious manners, and the superior expressions that his face displays like the way he never say thanks after receiving a service or the way he always wants to give a tip instead of queuing like others. But despite this, she goes steady with Joe because he inspires the pride and offers the luxury that her heart desperately desires.

Solène is what many Rwandans call umukuzi, a profiteer; as she double-dates and stays with Joe for financial reasons. His money is the only quality she likes in her businessman boyfriend, the father of the baby she is carrying.

In Rwanda, 47% of all pregnancies are unintended and sex before marriage is taboo . When Solène goes to the church every Sunday, she is supposedly a “good virgin girl”. This is why it’s difficult to announce her pregnancy to her family. She will blot out the nearly perfect image, the virtual label she has proudly worn for 25 years.

“Why haven’t you taken contraceptive pills or used a good condom while they are available in all pharmacies of Kigali?” A cousin asked accusingly after discovering about Solène’s pregnancy.

‘You must abort!’ Her best friend told her, as did several other close friends.

But her moral sense refused to take this path. In addition, her church mentor admonished,

“If you follow this ghastly choice, God will never forgive for killing His child and will curse you.”

If Solène aborts, she will be among 25 abortions per 1000 women in Rwanda. A third of abortions are done by various faiseuses d’anges, French for angel makers, as traditional healers are known. 14% and 19% of abortions are performed by midwives and doctors, respectively. The majority of women who abort are unmarried, first time mothers who are below 25 years.

Solène’s second choice is to keep the baby and carry the shame of a single mother. Her third choice it to get married to Joe. Despite her beauty, she worries that Joe will not wait for her. He is an eligible bachelor, her mother always reminds her. He will be an easy prey for other ambitious female scroungers starting from her church choir mates. 

Ninety four percent of Rwandans are Christians. Whenever they get married, they engage in a civil ceremony, traditional wedding and a church service. These three parts of a Rwandan marriage have to be accomplished for one to feel “fully married”.  Unfortunately, this ‘full marriage’ sometimes lacks the good old love and focuses more on social aspects.

Common factors behind such marriages are unintended pregnancies, age, social pressure, financial interests, better employment opportunities and then…. deep affection.

As the foundation of the actual marriage is not solely love, conflicts often arise. In 2013, Rwanda faced 508 murders, assaults and suicide cases related to family conflicts. Extra marital affairs have increased considerably and sugar daddies have run riot. Due to unhappy marriages, there are also young men called abapfubuzi who offer their services to satisfy old sugar mummies.

It is a web of deception that binds together young and old; rich and poor; religious and secular.

After finding herself caught in this web, Solène decides to save her honor and get married to Joe.

She chooses comfort over love.

In the past, a woman was considered as “umutima w’urugo” (the soul of the family). She was not allowed to voice her thoughts too often or to share her complains too loudly. She was meant to keep her feelings at the bottom of her heart and humbly accept her blissful or painful destiny. A respectful Rwandan woman was meant to raise a family and take care of the husband.

This cultural subservience gradually subsiding  thanks to flourishing women emancipation.

The Rwandan woman who had silently faced gender based violence in the past is now aware of her RIGHTS. She now knows that her dignity is non-negotiable.

As women are more empowered, they are allowed to defend their rights including the right to divorce. Rwanda counts 3.4 % divorced women against 1% men, a seven-fold growth since 2002. Still, it’s harder for a divorced woman to find another stable partner as there are 88 men for 100 women countrywide. 

Consequently, the Rwandan woman often remains single after divorce, which can expose her to sexual depravity. The same is true for a single woman who becomes accidentally pregnant, especially in rural areas. Most men will not consider her to be ‘wife material.’  

On the other hand, in Rwanda, the womanhood and the motherhood depend on the manhood. She has to wait for the male to propose her. The life of an adult woman is intimately defined by her marital status otherwise, she will be considered as a social failure. Around the age of 30, she is already seen as an old girl, umukecuru.

It is against this backdrop that Solène cannot risk becoming an unwed single mother. Her parents are so eager for their daughter to give birth within marriage that they take a bank loan to fund her wedding.

On a Saturday evening, Solène’s aunts organize a kitchen party where all men and children are excluded. These elder and wiser women share with Solène and other young women the secrets of a successful marriage.

A week later, the traditional wedding was celebrated in the morning hours. The dowry was paid to Solène’s parents. Women were in shining traditional “imishanana” and men wore dark western suits. The DJ played the very popular Araje araje araje, araberewe ni umugeni mwiza mumurangamire…

This is a song by a local artist that accompanies the bride when she comes to greet her husband-to-be. People cheer as Solène comes. But the hawk eyes of some women search the bride’s belly to verify if she is pregnant or not.  

To cover the shame of pre-marital pregnancy, Solène is wearing a wedding dress that covers her pregnancy bulge.  As they escort her to the holy altar, her father and mother are grateful that the white bridal veil is covering the bride’s sorrowful eyes.  

They smiled, celebrated, drank, ate, prayed and danced.  They rejoiced that the wedding had saved their family from a scandal.

They had gambled on Joe’ wealth to help paying back their credit.  Although the bank loan now weighs heavily on them, they believe that they have done the “right” thing.

 Since Solène was born, her parents have never mentioned the “sex topic” in front of her. The only time that they have talked about her body with her, was at the age of 12 when she had her first periods. She learnt more about sex through a biology course back in high school, public plays, and through animated debates with female friends. In these discussions, there was a very thin line between fact and fiction and most of them pretended to be innocent.

Solène remembers that her cousin has accused her to not using contraceptive measures. What that cousin ignored was that she has never needed them before Joe. She followed him blindly and he led her to a pregnancy and marriage that she wasn’t ready for.

Solène’s family could have prevented this unplanned pregnancy by having an open and honest discussion about sex education at an earlier stage of her life. Instead of learning from Solène’s situation and protect her younger sisters, they have covered the smoke while their home was on fire by encouraging her to get married.

Even as her family slept on the job, the government made some small steps towards empowering young women like Solene. Rwanda accomplished what no other country has done: to increase the contraceptive prevalence rate by more than tenfold within a decade, from 4% in 2000 to 45% in 2010.

Last year, 0.24% of the National budget was allocated to gender institutions and now Rwandan women over twenty-one years have access to modern contraceptive including   injectables, male condoms and pills. However, these efforts are not always supported by local churches that preach abstinence. These contradictions are likely to confuse young people and create a feeling of guilty shyness if they had to talk about sex.

It is against this backdrop that women like Solène find themselves exposed to consequences of unprotected sex and early pregnancies.

In the middle of different social and public laws that protect Solène, which one reminds her aunts during the kitchen party to tell her that being a single mother is also her choice? Which law would protect her from judgmental and sadistic stares from her family, colleagues and the entire society?

Who would compassionately tolerate her illegitimate pregnancy? What if it’s the society itself that pushed her to marry Joe while she tenderly loves someone else? Why do the church and her community tolerate her more once they know that she is pregnant but will get married soon?

Solène believes that she has protected her baby by offering him a chance to live in a family set-up. Yet if her marriage fails, her child will have the misfortune of growing in a broken home. Even if she would have the financial security that most women aspire for, she would be tempted to secretly meet the other boyfriends and fall in the vicious circle of unfaithfulness.

Since Solène is a highly educated person with a modest and stable job, she could have chosen to raise her child alone and in so doing shatter societal judgments.

She would have completely agreed with those who preach women empowerment. She would have inspired other girls to say no to early marriage.

She would have been the hero of women who get married just because they are too afraid to be criticized.

She would have defied cultural laws that oblige her to obey her parents no matter what happens.

She would have understood that obeying one’s parents doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing one’s dreams.

She would have lived the experience of a woman who can stand on her own two feet.

She would have known the experience of choosing. 

Then she would have invited love to her heart.


And finally, she would have been a fully emancipated Rwandan woman, who chooses what is best for herself. 

Caroline Numuhire

I am in love with Mr. Pen

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