Early January, I spent a week interacting with married women living in rural areas in Rwanda as part of my work at an organisation. The conversations we had led to me questioning why heterosexual marriage seems like a punishment to so many women.
To understand this it is imperative to look at the role that socialization and upbringing play. From an early age girls are conditioned to aspire for marriage, a woman’s virtue is determined by whether she is ‘marriage material’ or not. So young women spend their lives waiting to be picked, because they are brainwashed to think marriage and having babies are the ultimate goals in life and without these they are incomplete.
In many parts of Africa, marriage is not about romantic relationships, it is an absolute milestone, a rite of passage if you want. It is also a state of servitude to the man that pays your bride price or dowry, so in other words you should appreciate being picked among the many. So women spend the rest of their lives performing emotional and physical labour as payback.
The truth of the matter is marriage is not simply an expression of love between two people. It is a legally and socially sanctioned institution which continues to benefit men at the expense of women. It is a direct product of patriarchy and it continues to thrive on it, particularly through the enforcement and maintenance of traditional gender roles where men are expected to be the breadwinners while women do all the housework and childcare.
So that week in January, as I spoke with women in rural Rwanda, some days I could not help but tear a bit. These women spoke candidly about how they have to endure physically abusive, emotionally absent and financially depriving spouses. Many spoke about how they have to dim their light, compromise their careers, friendships and leisure time just to keep some peace at home. One of the women spoke candidly about her marriage:
“If I need to go somewhere I always have to ask my husband for permission. Sometimes he accepts, sometimes he refuses. But he never asks me for permission, at times he does not even inform me of his whereabouts. Why? Because he is a man.”
With support from some non-governmental organisations, some of these were able to report domestic violence cases which the law fully recognises. Although a lot is happening for women to access justice, domestic violence is still prevalent in Rwanda. In 2015 a national survey indicated that more than 35% of women aged 15-49 have experienced violence at least once in their lifetime.
After such a long journey to healing, many felt they had found peace again and now have access to opportunities that can earn them income and cover other life needs. Although having control over your money can to an extent serve as a safety net especially for women in abusive relationships, many of these women feel trapped in relationships with no way out.
The institution of marriage is still as patriarchal and as old as the hills. In Rwanda today like in most societies across the world, women still do the bulk of unpaid and care work, whether they live and work in rural areas or in the city. Their work remains largely undervalued in macroeconomics. In addition, women are expected to ensure men are washed, fed like babies and be sexually satisfied. Meanwhile men who make very little effort to be parents or husbands are praised for being exceptional. Many of the women I spoke to are well aware of these inequalities.
As a feminist and Afrikan, I am more aware of the intersectionality between religion and culture. These two are used as tools to control women’s sexuality and to treat them as men’s property which exacerbates the inequalities in marriage and between women and men in general. Traditional and/or harmful practices like child marriage (which is sugarcoated in our laws as defilement really), forced marriage, female genital mutilation, son preference and polygamy are some of the customs and practices that are still widely accepted and sanctioned by both religion and culture today.
As of 2018, more than 30 countries in the world do not recognise marital rape as a crime, majority in Africa. The women I spoke to talked about how denial of sex warrants them punishments. I was told a man’s sexual appetite cannot be tamed so it’s up to a woman to ensure he gets to have sex whenever he wants. Furthermore, sexual education for women is influenced by religious and moral forces that require a woman to be submissive and tame her sexuality so even in marriage a woman’s role is to give whenever a man wants. Initiating sex is not viewed as a behaviour suitable for ‘a good woman’.
Divorce for instance, although it may be granted, remains socially and culturally frowned upon and discouraged. Staying married is more important than opting out, despite how toxic the relationship may be. One of the women I met, Josephine, spoke about having endured years of abuse in her marriage.
“I grew up knowing men are like gold, if you find one you are the lucky one, it does not matter if he beats you or if he has other women outside, the value of a woman is in having a husband. You do all that it takes to keep him,” she narrated.
These women also spoke about the shame associated with being a divorced woman; society still believes in the age-long belief that women are largely responsible for making or breaking homes regardless of the circumstances. Today I am more convinced marriage is more beneficial to men than women and it is damaging to women’s mental health. So why settle for a man that does the bare minimum in a relationship? It is complicated, but my observations led me to think many women still lack the power within that could enable them to make informed choice in the face of these social pressures.
As the week came to an end, I wondered what’s in store for millions of girls on the continent, who as we speak are being groomed to be wives someday. Many claim- falsely- feminism is destroying many marriages. Well, if marriage cannot stand the test of equality, if marriage is built on the subjugation and oppression of women, then I am happy to see the institution collapse. As long as patriarchy is alive and thriving, marriage will continue to be inherently hostile to women.
Olive is a feminist and PanAfrikanist with over 10 years of experience in policy and advocacy work for women’s rights in the Great Lakes region. She works and lives in Kigali, Rwanda. You can connect with her on Twitter @uwaolive where she regularly talks about dismantling patriarchy.