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Intersectionalities of formality of marital status and women's risk and protective factors for intimate partner violence in Rwanda

Article (PDF Available) inAgenda 31(1) · August 2017with86 Reads
DOI: 10.1080/10130950.2017.1349345
Erin Stern at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • 17.28
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Indashyikirwa is an intimate partner violence (IPV) prevention programme being implemented by CARE International Rwanda, Rwanda Women's Network and Rwanda Men's Resource Centre in Rwanda. One critical aspect of the programme is a 5-month curriculum to promote equitable, violence-free relationships among formally and informally married heterosexual couples. This article complements existing evidence in Rwanda around how formality of marital status influences women's access to rights, social status, risk and protective factors for IPV, and highlights barriers to formalising marriage – primarily lack of financial means and gendered inequalities. It draws on research of Indashyikirwa, including interviews with 15 male and 15 female partners of formally and informally married couples, 9 community leaders, 3 women's space facilitators, 9 staff members, 12 community activists and 24 focus groups with community members. Interviews and focus groups were conducted in Kinyarwanda, transcribed and translated into English, and analysed thematically. The findings indicate poor legal protection and related limited institutional responses for informally married women who experience IPV. An intersectional lens supports recommendations to address such inequalities, including raising awareness among women in informal marriages about strategies to ensure rights for themselves and their children, and to legally acknowledge informal unions after a certain period of cohabitation.
Intersectionalities of formality of marital
status and womens risk and protective
factors for intimate partner violence in
Erin Stern and Justine Mirembe
Indashyikirwa is an intimate partner violence (IPV) prevention programme being implemented by CARE
International Rwanda, Rwanda Womens Network and Rwanda Mens Resource Centre in Rwanda. One critical
aspect of the programme is a 5-month curriculum to promote equitable, violence-free relationships among
formally and informally married heterosexual couples. This article complements existing evidence in Rwanda
around how formality of marital status inuences womens access to rights, social status, risk and protective
factors for IPV, and highlights barriers to formalising marriage primarily lack of nancial means and gendered
inequalities. It draws on research of Indashyikirwa, including interviews with 15 male and 15 female partners of
formally and informally married couples, 9 community leaders, 3 womens space facilitators, 9 staff members,
12 community activists and 24 focus groups with community members. Interviews and focus groups were
conducted in Kinyarwanda, transcribed and translated into English, and analysed thematically. The ndings
indicate poor legal protection and related limited institutional responses for informally married women who
experience IPV. An intersectional lens supports recommendations to address such inequalities, including
raising awareness among women in informal marriages about strategies to ensure rights for themselves and
their children, and to legally acknowledge informal unions after a certain period of cohabitation.
Rwanda, marriage, intersectionalities, violence, rights
The intersectionality framework appreciates
that individuals can experience stigma and
discrimination on the basis of multiple identi-
ties, and how gender interacts with factors
such as age, disability, sexuality, race, and
socio-economic status to shape individual
experiences (Crenshaw, 1989). The impli-
cations of the framework have been ques-
tioned (Garry, 2011), including its limitations
to address a variety of coexisting identities
and recognise if and which social category is
the most salient in a given context, or failure
to emphasise how identity categories are
manifestations of power in relation to state
and society (Anthias, 2012). Yet the frame-
work continues to appeal to feminist scholars
for its potential to illuminate or further unpack
gendered issues and help develop theories
around power inequalities within specic con-
texts (Davis, 2008; Garry, 2011).
Agenda 2017
ISSN 1013-0950 print/ISSN 2158-978X online
© 2017 pp. 112
This article provides an in-depth analysis
of the interaction of the social category of
formal or informal marital status for
women in Rwanda. Although formality of
marital status is a relatively unexamined
phenomenon in intersectionalities literature,
there is evidence in Rwanda around how this
identity signicantly implicates womens
access to rights including property, house-
hold decision-making, exposure to intimate
partner violence (IPV) and social standing
(Polavarapu, 2011; Mwendwa Mechta et al,
2016; Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016). In the
Rwandan context informal marriage refers
to a union between unmarried men and
women who cohabitate (Polavarapu, 2011;
Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016). Such arrange-
ments can be referred to as illegal mar-
riagesfor representing marriages not
protected by or recognised under the
current laws in Rwanda, including womens
rights to property and custody of their chil-
dren in the case of divorce or separation
from their spouse (Powley, 2007;
Mwendwa Mechta et al,2016). The 2014/
2015 Rwanda Demographic and Health
Survey (DHS) (National Institute of Statistics
Rwanda, 2015) found that 35% of women
aged 1549 years are in formal marriages,
and 17% of women are in informal unions,
which is a signicant proportion of women
who potentially live in precarious situations.
This social category is critical to appreci-
ate for Indashyikirwa, a 4-year (20142018)
IPV prevention programme funded by DFID
Rwanda and being implemented by CARE
International Rwanda, Rwanda Womens
Network (RWN) and Rwanda Mens Resource
Centre (RWAMREC) across three provinces
in Rwanda. A fundamental aspect of the pro-
gramme is a 5-month curriculum to promote
gender-equitable, violence-free relationships
among heterosexual couples aged 1849
years who are either legally married or had
lived together for at least 6 months, which
used CAREs micro-nance village savings
and loans associations as an entry-point.
Approximately 25% of the 840 couples
that completed the curriculum received
further training to become community acti-
vists in order to diffuse the positive uses of
power and benets of non-violent relation-
ships within their communities. To support
an enabling environmentfor change the
programme also trained and supported
opinion leaders (e.g. religious and local
elected leaders, service providers, media
personnel) to more effectively prevent and
respond to IPV, and established womens
spaces to provide a safe space for women
to openly discuss experiences of IPV,
educate women about their rights, and
accompany women who wish to report
abuse or seek health or social services.
This article draws on baseline and
midline qualitative research conducted to
inform and evaluate the Indashyikirwa pro-
gramme. It does not prioritise experiences
of widowed, divorced and single women,
although these social categories have been
found to implicate womens vulnerability to
gender based violence (GBV). For instance,
the 2014/2015 Rwanda DHS (National Insti-
tute of Statistics Rwanda, 2015) found that
divorced, widowed and separated women
reported higher rates of physical violence
since the age of 15 years (54.2% compared
to 39.2% among those who are married
and 22.4% among those who have never
married) and having ever experienced
sexual violence (30.7% compared to 23.2%
among the married and 19% among the
never married). Since formally and infor-
mally married men and women are one of
the target beneciaries of the Indashyikirwa
programme, which focuses on preventing
IPV, it is appropriate rather to prioritise an
analysis of the intersection of formality of
marital status for women.
Rwandan context of formal and
informal marriages
In Rwanda, as in many global contexts,
formal marriage is a critical route to
achieve societal status and adulthood for
men and women (Sommers, 2012). This
status is further encouraged by the
Rwandan Government, which has taken
steps to increase formal, civilly registered
marriages in relation to the growth of
national policies, laws and programmes
intended to support womens rights.
Notable laws are the 1999 Law on Matrimo-
nial Regimes, Liberalities and Successions,
which established womens rights to inherit
land for the rst time in Rwanda (Powley,
2007)crucial in a country where the vast
majority rely on subsistence agriculture.
The Land Law, approved in 2005 and
amended in 2013, was established to encou-
rage formally married spouses to share all
2AGENDA 2017
common assets in the case of divorce, separ-
ation or widowhood (Mwendwa Mechta
et al,2016).
The government has conducted mass
marriages in various districts to register
informal marriages (Brown and Uvuza,
2006), and obliges churches not to perform
religious weddings for couples that have
not rst had a civil marriage (Kaiser
Hughes et al, 2016). Government agencies,
international organisations and NGOs have
also implemented awareness programmes
to educate women about the rights accom-
panying civil marriages (Polavarapu, 2011).
Rwandan women remain limited in their
ability to participate in land decisions due
to patriarchal attitudes and traditional
beliefs (Powley, 2007; Polavarapu, 2011;
Abbott and Malunda, 2015), lack of aware-
ness of their rights or to avoid family dis-
putes (Mwenda Mechta et al, 2016).
Nonetheless there is some evidence that for-
mally married womens abilities to control
land have improved since adoption of the
1999 Succession Law (Lankhorst, 2012;
Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016).
While Rwandan women living in infor-
mal unions may gain security to land if
they register as joint owners, this is hindered
by womens poor bargaining power
(Mwendwa Mechta et al, 2016) and cultural
expectations to register land in a mans
name. Indeed, a wealth of evidence suggests
that the majority of women in informal mar-
riages are not listed on land title certicates
(Santos et al, 2012; Jones-Casey et al, 2014;
Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016). This puts
Rwandan women in informal marriages at
risk of being left landless in the event of sep-
aration or death of their informal spouse
(Vanhees, 2011; Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016;
Mwendwa Mechta et al, 2016).
Article 39 of the 2008 GBV Law
that if an individuals informal spouse
decides to formally marry another person,
that individual has the right to an equal
share of the couples commonly owned
belongings, although some research
suggests poor awareness by both women
and land mediators of this exception
(Mwenda Mechta et al, 2016). If a father
legally acknowledges children of informal
marriages, the children can benet from
their share of his property (Polvaparu, 2011).
In addition to insecure access to land and
property, Rwandan women in informal mar-
riages have been found to have less say in
household decision-making (Jones-Casey
et al,2014; Mwendwa Mechta et al,2016),
less ability to access other resources includ-
ing food, poorer self-esteem, greater vulner-
ability to poverty, and poorer health than
formally married women (Daley et al,
2013). Legally married women have been
found to be more likely to be community
leaders (Mwendwa Mechta et al, 2016),
assume public ofce, and have greater
opportunities to acquire bank loans (Kaiser
Hughes et al,2016).
There is a wealth of evidence indicating
the stigmatisation of informally married
Rwandan women, including their being con-
sidered prostitutes(Vanhees, 2014;
Mwendwa Mechta et al,2016; Kaiser
Hughes et al, 2016). Church messaging that
informal marriages are sinful can also con-
tribute to the social stigma of such unions
(Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016). Rwandan
women in informal marriages who do not
bear children have been found to be more
vulnerable to being chased awayby their
partners or having their land grabbed by
their partnersfamilies, as children add
legitimacy to informal marriages (Kaiser
Hughes et al,2016). Women in informal mar-
riages can be more at risk of IPV for lacking
legal protection and societal respect (Daley
et al,2013; Mwendwa Mechta et al, 2016;
Kaiser Hughes et al,2016).
Mannell and Dadswells (2017:11) case
study of the Rwandan Governments GBV
committees, which have been set up to
address GBV at the village level, found that
if cases of IPV cannot be resolved by the
community, a married couple is typically
referred to a higher level of government, or
for severe cases to the police or court for
divorce rulings. However, they found that:
unmarried women who experience IPV
are rarely reported to higher levels of gov-
ernment because divorce proceedings are
not relevant in these cases and IPV is
otherwise not perceived as a legal issue.
In this context GBV Committees often
advised unmarried women experiencing
IPV to marry their abusive partner in order
to improve relationship stability and
Intersectionalities of formality of marital status and womens risk and protective factors 3
support their legal protection to limit further
A wealth of barriers to Rwandan women
entering formal marriages have also been
identied. A study conducted by Haguruka
in 2003 found the most common cause of
informal marriage to be poverty (cited by
81.7% of individuals), including lacking
funds for registration, a marriage ceremony
and giving expensive gifts (Polavarapu,
2011). While the marriage registration fee is
relatively low in some districts, payment of
bridewealth, whereby a man pays a
womans family with cows or money
(Uwineza and Pearson, 2009), is typically
the greatest expense related to marriage
(Kaiser Hughes et al,2016). Although infor-
mal marriages can include couples that
cohabitate without observing traditional
practices, unions where bridewealth has
been paid are reportedly more respected
by families and in communities (Kaiser
Hughes et al, 2016).
Women are typically expected to have
domestic items such as kitchen utensils,
while men are expected to build a house,
and if either party cannot full these require-
ments they might rather marry informally
(Kaiser Hughes et al,2016). Dysfunctional
families or abuse at home can prompt
women to marry informally, and orphans
and illegitimate children are more likely to
marry informally due to poverty and lack of
land inheritance (Kaiser Hughes et al,
2016). Unmarried pregnant women are
prone to community rejection and stigma
and informal marriages can alleviate some
of this social and economic vulnerability
(Polavarapu, 2011; Kaiser Hughes et al,
2016). In some cases women who are preg-
nant out of wedlock are forced by their
parents to live with the father (Kaiser
Hughes et al,2016). Cultural expectations
that widowed women do not remarry
means that those who do are often stigma-
tised, and many widowed women thus hide
their relationships and informally remarry
(Kaiser Hughes et al,2016).
The 1998 family law introduced the
minimum age of legal marriage as 21
years, intended to prevent school drop-out
and minimise the likelihood of divorce and
family conict. Thus, women under the age
of 21 years may enter into informal unions
because they cannot legally marry (Kaiser
Hughes et al, 2016). Moreover, Rwandan
women who are not married by their late
twenties are often severely pressured by
their families and communities to marry
and may marry informally to relieve this
pressure (Sommers, 2012; Kaiser Hughes
et al,2016). According to the 2014/2015
Rwanda DHS (National Institute of Statistics
Rwanda, 2015) the median age at rst mar-
riage among women is 22 years compared
to 26 years for men, and 73% of women
are married by age 25. Several studies
have also found that some men prefer to
informally marry to avoid the rights and obli-
gations that accompany formal marriages,
in order to preserve the traditional male-
headed household dynamic (Brown and
Uvuza, 2006; Polavarapu, 2011; Kaiser
Hughes et al,2016).
The article draws on qualitative formative
and evaluation research conducted in three
Indashyikirwa intervention sectors
(Rurembo Sector, Western Province;
Gishari Sector, Eastern Province; and
Gacaca Sector, Northern Province), which
were purposefully selected to represent a
diversity of environments including rural,
urban and peri-urban locations. As part of
the formative research 24 focus groups (8
per sector) were completed with 68 com-
munity members per group. In each sector
focus groups were conducted with unmar-
ried women under 25; married women over
25; unmarried men under 30; and married
men over 30, to tease out variations in per-
ceptions of gender norms related to IPV
according to age, marital status and sex. As
noted above, according to the recent
Rwandan DHS (National Institute of Stat-
istics Rwanda, 2015) the median age of mar-
riage for women is a few years younger than
for men, hence the different age selection
criteria for the focus groups.
A female Rwandan researcher (JM) facili-
tated the focus groups with women and a
male Rwandan researcher facilitated the
focus groups with men. RWN staff purpose-
fully recruited community members who
met age, marital and sex criteria. Focus
groups were held at sector or cell level
ofces, and each group was interviewed
twice. For the rst round, a social vignette
was used with participants to discuss
typical gendered attitudes, behaviours and
4AGENDA 2017
social norms in their communities. Follow-
up discussions explored how men and
women should behave in marriage, includ-
ing division of labour in the home and
household decision-making. Common
causes of conict between couples, commu-
nity attitudes towards men and women who
have children out of wedlock, and what typi-
cally happens when a womans husband
dies (including whether she inherits the
property or gets custody of the children)
were also assessed.
As part of the evaluation research, 30
baseline interviews were conducted with
couples enrolled in but not yet having
begun the Indashyikirwa couplescurricu-
lum. In each sector, 5 male and 5 female part-
ners of couples were interviewed separately
by same-sex interviewers, including the
second author (Justine Mirembe).
RWAMREC staff purposefully recruited
couples, ensuring a diversity of formally
and informally married couples. Couples
were asked about their expectations of each
other, how they resolve issues around
common trigger-points of conict, their com-
munication skills and joint decision making.
Twenty-eight midline interviews were con-
ducted with couples immediately after their
completion of the curriculum (due to one
couple being lost to follow-up) to assess
their impressions of and the impact of the
curriculum personally and in their relation-
ships. Nine RWAMREC eld ofcers and
supervisors who facilitated the trainings
with couples were also interviewed immedi-
ately after the couplescurriculum to assess
their impressions of the curriculum.
Nine baseline interviews (three per
sector) were conducted with opinion leaders
enrolled in and before completing the Inda-
shyikirwa opinion leader module. A diversity
of opinion leaders were purposefully
recruited by RWN staff members to include
government leaders, members of anti-GBV
committees or the National Womens
and religious leaders. Interviews
assessed whether opinion leaders have
come into contact with couples having pro-
blems in their relationships, and the most
common reasons couples have conict.
Opinion leaders were also asked about gen-
dered decision-making roles in families,
how common IPV is in their communities
and circumstances (if any) where they per-
sonally or community members believe this
is justied. Six midline interviews were con-
ducted after 12 months, as three opinion
leaders were lost to follow-up due to leaving
the programme or being replaced after local
re-elections. These interviews assessed
their impressions of Indashyikirwa and
whether their involvement has inuenced
their work in IPV prevention and response.
Three interviews were also conducted with
womens space facilitators (one per sector)
to assess when and why women visit the
womens spaces, what activities they
engage in, what support they receive, and
the perceived impact of the spaces.
Twelve baseline interviews were con-
ducted with two male and two female com-
munity activists per sector. Community
activists were purposefully selected not to
be drawn from the couplessample, to have
successfully completed the Indashyikirwa
community activist training as well as at
least one month of activist activities. Commu-
nity activists were asked about their
impressions of the activism training, their
motivations to continue as activists, any chal-
lenges they had faced so far in conducting
activism, and the perceived inuence of
their activism efforts on their relationship
and community.
Before each interview and focus group
discussion (FGD) participants were given
information on the aims, risks and benets
of the research and gave informed written
consent. Participants were compensated
with 2000 Rwandan francs per interview or
FGD. Interviews were conducted at locations
deemed private and appropriate for partici-
pants. The study was approved by the
Rwandan National Ethics Committee (Ref.
340/RNEC/2015), the National Institute of
Statistics Rwanda (Ref. 0738/2015/10/NISR),
the South African Medical Research Council
(Ref. EC033-10/2015), and the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Interviews with staff were conducted in
English by the rst author and detailed
notes were taken of each interview. All
other FGDs and interviews were conducted
in Kinyarwanda and audio-recorded. Using
the audio les the data were transcribed
and translated verbatim into English. The
transcripts were then analysed by the rst
author using a thematic coding framework
with the assistance of NVivo 11 software.
Thematic analysis was conducted to
uncover predominant themes in order to
Intersectionalities of formality of marital status and womens risk and protective factors 5
provide a rich, detailed and holistic account
of the data (Braun and Clarke, 2006). The
authors arrived at a focus on formality of
marital status through a grounded theory
approach (Charmaz, 2006). Formality of
marital status was not the a priori focus of
the study but emerged as a theme in terms
of womens access to rights, social status,
household decision making, risk and protec-
tive factors for IPV all highly relevant to
the Indashyikirwa programme and evalu-
ation. The rst author regularly workshopped
the emerging ndings with senior Indashyi-
kirwa programme staff, who played critical
roles in verifying the analysis and interpret-
ation of the data.
Perceptions of formal and informal
The data indicate the widespread percep-
tion among all participants of formal, regis-
tered marriages as the most secure and
respected form of intimate partnership
between men and women. Informal mar-
riages were regularly identied as illegal
marriagesfor not being registered or
accepted by the law:
There is a type of relationship which is
legally accepted and the one where
people live together illegally. The rst
cases are the ones accepted by society,
and illegal marriage is not accepted by
law.(< 25 years unmarried women
FGD, Northern Province)
There was wide consensus on the social
stigma of informal marriages, particularly
for women:
If they are illegally married, the woman is
called a prostitute.(<25 years, unmarried
women FGD, Western Province)
Several male and female partners of couples
lamented how limited nancial means hin-
dered their ability to marry formally:
Most of the times it is due to poverty. For
example, I was an orphan and no one
could help me with the wedding.(Male
partner of formally married couple, North-
ern Province, baseline)
A few male partners of couples discussed
the shame of being unable to formally
marry and pay for bridewealth due to lack
of economic means, especially given the
salient expectation of men as nancial provi-
ders. There was general consensus from
male and female partners of couples that
formal marriages are generally more legiti-
mised and endorsed by churches than infor-
mal marriages. One female partner of a
couple lamented how she is stigmatised in
her church community for being informally
married, and related her regular prayers
and desire to formally marry to be recog-
nised as spouses by the church(female of
informally married couple, Eastern Province,
A few opinion leaders, couples and FGD
participants noted how formal marriage
minimises the likelihood of men having
extramarital affairs or formally marrying
other women:
When you have couples that are not
legally married in your church it is not
good because at one point a man
marries another woman, and the rst
woman is considered as someone who
never existed even though she has given
her energy and support to build her
family.(Opinion leader, Western Pro-
vince, midline)
One male partner of a couple shared his
concern that formal marriage undermines
mens decision-making authority and
rights, including to property:
When a man has a legal marriage with his
wife it is not very good. In that case you are
tying yourself to her, you no longer have a
word at home. You are giving yourself to
her and in that case you are giving her
your possessions and you cannot sell any-
thing unless it is sold by your wife.(Male
partner of informally married couple,
Western Province, baseline)
Aeld ofcer in Northern Province similarly
noted mens perceptions of and related
resistance to formal marriages:
Some men said it is not necessary to
have a civil marriage. They thought to
have a civil marriage meant to put a
chain on their neck.
6AGENDA 2017
An unexpected outcome of the Indashyi-
kirwa couplescurriculum was that more
than two dozen trained couples formalised
their marriages as a sign of commitment,
to ensure protection of womens and chil-
drens rights, and/or from learning how to
have harmonious marriages. As one eld
ofcer in Western Province noted:
So the man thought if it does not work
he can get another wife. Now they know
they are a team that should work
together and it is possible to live
together in harmony.
One female partner of a couple expressed
her happiness about having a formal mar-
riage as a result of the curriculum, yet also
indicated how this was ultimately her hus-
bands decision:
We were not legally married but now he
registered at the sector ofce and we will
marry in April. It made me happy. He
nally understood that I have to be his
wife. I think before he thought that we
should not be legally married but he
took a decision and said: Let us have a
civil wedding!’” (Female partner of for-
mally married couple, Northern Province,
Intersectionalities of gender and
formal marital status
There was general consensus from male and
female partners of couples, FGD partici-
pants, opinion leaders and womens space
facilitators that in the case of divorce, joint
ownership of property and custody of chil-
dren with mandated support from ones ex-
husband is only secured for legally married
What can be done if she divorces legally,
they divide the property and the property
is used to take good care of children,
because it is authorities who settle cases
and the husband will be obliged to give
some portion of the property to the
mother to take care of children.(< 25
years unmarried women FGD, Eastern
One womens space facilitator in the
Western Province noted how some women
manage to negotiate custody of their
children even if they are not formally
married, despite having no economic
support from the informal spouse for doing
this. A few FGD participants discussed how
an increasing awareness of childrens
rights is propelling families to allow infor-
mally married women to retain some prop-
erty in the best interests of the children:
For the illegally married women, if she
loses her husband, the family-in-law may
ask her to leave the house. But today chil-
drens rights are respected and they allow
her to take care of children from their
property.(> 25 years married women
FGD, Western Province)
However, one opinion leader discussed how
women increasingly desire to marry legally
to have their rights protected, especially
those related to property:
A man tells his wife she doesnt have any
right to the property and you can see a
man who sells livestock or gives out land
and his wife keeps quiet. But now
women are getting to know their rights,
women who are not legally married are
getting legally married so they can be
covered by the law.(Opinion leader,
Eastern Province, baseline)
Access to land and property was regularly
given as one of the most salient causes of
conict and IPV among couples. In one
FGD, participants discussed how women in
informal marriages who have their own or
family properties are vulnerable to violence
from their informal spouses, as their part-
ners are not guaranteed access to this
wealth in such circumstances:
Something else that may cause a man to
beat his wife; sometimes when a couple is
not legally married and if the family of the
wife has many lands he can beat her,
asking her to get the plot of land from her
parents. He can beat her to ask her to get
the wealth from her family.(< 30 years
unmarried men FGD, Northern Province)
A few opinion leaders related sensitising
community members to have legal marriages
to protect the rights of women and their
children, including this religious opinion
Intersectionalities of formality of marital status and womens risk and protective factors 7
We tell them: As a Christian you should be
legallymarried with your wife.By so doing,
you are setting free that couples children
because they have their rights.(Opinion
leader, Western Province, midline)
One womens space facilitator in the North-
ern Province remarked on the limited house-
hold decision-making power of informally
married women:
If he says: It is an order that I give now,
so you understand that if they are illegally
married, the wife cannot refuse her hus-
bands demands.
One male partner of a couple noted how for-
mally marrying a woman who has children
from another man entails taking on respon-
sibility for those children. However, he per-
ceived this not to be the case among
informal marriages:
One canbring a wife who is pregnant from
another man and if you are already legally
married it requires you to go in the court
to solve that problem, whereas when you
are not legally married you can tell her Go
back to your parents and bring back the
baby to the real father; when you are
married she can tell you that the baby is
yours.(Male partner of formally married
couple, Northern Province, baseline)
In one FGD participants discussed how infor-
mally married women who report IPV to the
police are not treated with the same legiti-
macy as legally married women:
Some people live together without legal
marriage. So when the wife reports to
police, they really dont consider the
case to be serious, most of the time they
refuse to intervene. They are not given
any value in that situation.(< 30 years
unmarried men FGD, Eastern Province)
In this FGD participants further reected that
police may not come to the house if a case of
IPV is reported by an informally married
They ask the status of your union, when
you say you are not legally married they
[the police] simply dont come.
One opinion leader emphasised how cases
of IPV and/or property disputes among infor-
mally married couples are difcult to resolve
without any legal protection:
In most cases we leaders fail to resolve
cases reported by women in informal
unions because we dont have laws to
base this on. All laws, the constitution,
family law and succession law guarantee
property rights of couples who registered
their marriages.(Opinion leader, Eastern
Province, midline)
Similarly, a community activist reported
how community leaders felt incapable of
resolving the situation of an informally
married woman who was chased away by
her spouse and could not claim back any of
her possessions:
Because they were not legally married,
that man told her I am chasing you
away!So later on when she came back
to claim some of the things she had
brought, that is when I went to the
village leader who was saying: That is
too much! She faced a terrible violence
but since she was not legally married,
there is nothing else we can do for her.’”
(Female activist, Western Province)
This reection on behalf of a local leader
having nothingto do illustrates the insti-
tutional constraints and barriers faced by
informally married women in trying to
access their rights.
Discussion and recommendations
This article asserts the value of an intersec-
tional lens so that such inuential social cat-
egories regarding womens risk and
protective factors to IPV are foregrounded.
The ndings complement existing evidence
in Rwanda on the inadequate legal protec-
tion, stigma and discrimination faced by
informally married women from husbands,
community members and even service pro-
viders (Kaiser Hughes et al,2016). Given the
salience of this social category for women
in this context, in future the Rwanda DHS
should differentiate between women who
are married and those who are living
together, which are currently together
under one category. An intersectional
8AGENDA 2017
approach appreciates the structural barriers
to achieving preferred social categories; in
this context being formal marriages. Signi-
cant barriers to formal marriage were ident-
ied in this study, most notably the high
cost of civil registration and traditional wed-
dings. To address this barrier it has pre-
viously been suggested that a fee waiver be
implemented for those who cannot afford
registration (Polavarapu, 2011). The govern-
ments mass marriage ceremonies also
seek to reduce the costs of marriage (Polavar-
apu, 2011). However, given the expensive tra-
ditions of Rwandan weddings, we further
support Kaiser Hughes et als(2016) sugges-
tion of encouraging couples to rstly register
their marriages and then save money for a
traditional wedding, and shifting expec-
tations around marriage practices to reduce
the costs.
Another barrier to formal marriages
identied in the data is womens limited
decision-making power to enter formal mar-
riages, even if they understand the benets.
The study also found that such benets may
deter men from formalising their unions, as
has been documented elsewhere (Polava-
prau, 2011; Vanhees, 2014; Mwendwa
Mechta et al,2016). The current emphasis
in Rwanda on sensitising couples on the
benets of legalising their unions is severely
limited by not acknowledging these unequal
gendered relations (Polavarapu, 2011).
A key solution proposed by some
womens groups and NGOs is to advocate
for the government to legally acknowledge
informal unions after a certain period of
cohabitation, an approach adopted in Tanza-
nia (Brown and Uvuza, 2006; Polavarapu,
2011; Mwendwa Mechta et al, 2016), or
those married in traditional or religious cer-
emonies (Kaiser Hughes et al, 2016). This
would guarantee similar rights for women
in such relationships, and may weaken
mens incentives to resist formal marriages
(Kaiser Hughes et al,2016).
In using an intersectionality lens it is
important to caveat that the precarious
nature of informal marital status is likely
more pronounced for women from poorer
socio-economic backgrounds and in rural
areas, given the dependency on land in
such settings. The perspectives in this
study are primarily from women and men
in rural areas or who are dependent on sub-
sistence farming, and from lower socio-
economic backgrounds, a criterion for
couples to be eligible for village savings
and loans association membership. It is a
limitation that we do not have perspectives
from women residing in more urban
environments or from higher socio-econ-
omic backgrounds to further unpack how
these categories intersect with formality of
marital status for women. This is an area
worthy of further exploration in Rwanda.
Although the data suggest that men in
informal marriages could also be afforded
less social status, particularly in religious
communities, and/or for failing to have the
economic means to formally marry, the
related stigma and discrimination were
reportedly more pronounced for women
than men. Moreover, the areas of pro-
nounced vulnerability for informally
married women access to decision
making, land, property, custody of children
have traditionally been more guaranteed
for Rwandan men than women.
An intersectional lens highlighted
accounts on behalf of or in reference to
those with authority, including opinion
leaders and the police, who were nonethe-
less unable to challenge the inequitable
legal frameworks that only protect formally
married women. References to such leader-
ship included being unresponsive or able
to do nothingon behalf of informally
married women who experienced IPV, were
denied access to property, or chased away
from their homes. Mannell and Dadswell
(2017) similarly found that community
members rarely mentioned the risks associ-
ated with the strategy of GBV committee
members advising unmarried women to
marry their abusers. The authors assert
that alternative responses were inhibited,
given the greater value given to legally
married partners, and since the laws
protect formally married womens rights
and sanction acts of violence committed by
their husbands, but leave unmarried
women at risk. Despite the authority and
mandate given to opinion leaders, police,
and GBV committees to address IPV, their
responses are hindered and shaped by insti-
tutional inequalities that disadvantage infor-
mally married women.
The intersectional approach of this study
supports critical recommendations for the
Indashyikirwa programme, which has both
formally and informally married
Intersectionalities of formality of marital status and womens risk and protective factors 9
beneciaries. Indashyikirwa should raise
awareness among women in informal mar-
riages about strategies to secure land
rights for women and their children, speci-
cally to register their children on the prop-
erty, and to be familiar with the GBV Law
Article 39, which allows a woman to claim
rights to property if an informal spouse
intends to formally marry someone else.
Local leaders who mediate separation of
informal couples also require greater aware-
ness of this exception (Mwendwa Mechta
et al, 2016).
The ndings support the need to
promote the value of informal marriages
and to discourage communities from
describing such unions as illegal, or refer-
ring to women in informal marriages as
prostitutes, which may prevent authorities
Indashyikirwa community activists host participatory discussions with community members using the pro-
gramme power posters. Photo: Franz Stapelberg. © What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls.
10 AGENDA 2017
from assisting such couples, dissuade
couples from claiming their rights
(Mwendwa Mechta et al,2016), or legitimate
men and community members treating
them as undeserving of rights and respect
(Kaiser Hughes et al,2016). The couplescur-
riculum and community advocacy support
couples and promote the value of making
joint decisions based on shared priorities
and communication, which appears to be
especially relevant for informally married
women. Indashyikirwa should promote
awareness of the revised Family Law
Article 206, which for the rst time in
Rwanda promotes joint headship of house-
holds, and could denaturalise the notion of
men as primary authorities and breadwin-
ners in the family. Actively engaging men
in such discourses and promoting the
benets of equitable partnerships, including
protecting mens informal spouses and chil-
dren, may be critical to mitigate mens resist-
ance to marrying formally.
This study corroborates other ndings
which indicate that informally married
women do not typically enjoy the promising
rights offered in Rwanda to the same degree
as formally married women. Informally
married women are disadvantaged in a
range of areas, including access to property
and custody of children, decision-making,
social status, and institutional responses to
their experiences of IPV. The elevation of
formal marital status is so much the case
that a proposed solution for informally
married women who experience IPV can be
to marry their abuser (Mannell and Dads-
well, 2017) in order to be in a relationship
that is protective of their rights. Appreciating
the intersection of gender and formality of
marital status is urgently needed in
Rwanda, and may be a critical phenomenon
to better understand and address in other
settings across Africa and globally.
We would like to acknowledge the Indashyikirwa part-
ners of CARE International Rwanda, RWAMREC and
RWN who provided generous and valuable input
into validating and interpreting the ndings. Thanks
to Leigh Stefanik, a GBV Programme Advisor at
CARE USA, for providing feedback on the article. We
also wish to thank all of the participants for sharing
their stories with us.
This piece of research was funded by DFID UK as
part of the Global What Works to Prevent Violence
against Women and Girls Programme.
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ERIN STERN is a Research Fellow with the London School of Hygiene and
Tropical Medicine, based in Rwanda as coordinator of a process and
impact evaluation of Indashyikiwra, a community intimate partner vio-
lence prevention programme. Her background is in gender and health
qualitative research and uptake, monitoring and evaluation, and teaching
with specialisation in prevention of gender-based violence, sexual and
reproductive health, gender transformative evaluation and masculinities.
She has a PhD in Public Health with the Womens Health Research Unit
from the University of Cape Town and an MSc in Health, Community
and Development from the London School of Economics & Political
Science. She has extensive experience conducting research for pro-
gramme formation and evaluation for various organisations, including
Oak Foundation, Sonke Gender Justice, KMG Ethiopia, AIDS-Free
World, Center of AIDS Development Research and Evaluation, Transcape,
and Treatment Action Campaign. Email:
JUSTINE MIREMBE is a gender and health consultant based in Rwanda
with expertise in human rights and law, gender mainstreaming policies
and strategies, project design and management and monitoring and
evaluation. She has a Masters degree in Gender and Development from
the University of Rwanda and a Postgraduate Diploma in International
Law and Human Rights from Lund University in Sweden. Justine is cur-
rently the senior qualitative researcher for the process and impact evalu-
ation of the Indashyikirwa programme. Email:
12 AGENDA 2017
  • ... While marriage may decrease women's autonomy and economic capital-and the answer to this may vary considerably between contexts and even individual marriages-many women believe that marriage will bring advantages such as social capital and benefits to their children ( Ruark et al., 2014). In Rwanda, women in informal marriages have been found to be more prone to social discrimination, have less influence in household decision-making compared to married women, and have less legal protection than do married women regarding land and property rights, custody of children, and IPV ( Stern & Mirembe, 2017). In contrast, Simelane (2011) and Golomski (2016) provide evidence that Swazi courts (both traditional and civil) do not protect married women against mistreatment by husbands, even in cases of extreme physical violence. ...
CARE Rwanda, together with the Rwanda Women’s Network (RWN) and Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC), are currently implementing the Indashyikirwa programme in Rwanda , which means “agents for ch…" [more]
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      Background: While the relationship between hegemonic norms of masculinity and men’s use of sexual violence in South Africa is well understood (cf. Jewkes and Morrell 2010), less is known about how women’s engagement with norms of masculinity influence their conceptualization of sexually coercive experiences. This study applied a narrative approach, which foregrounds personal experiences and... [Show full abstract]
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