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Forced marriage in Burundi puts young girls at risk of HIV infection

Keeping girls in school helps protect their sexual and reproductive health and rights | Credit: Nell Freeman for International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Ahead of the Girl Summit to end female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage of girls, taking place in London on 22 July, Key Correspondent Jean-Claude Kamwenubusa reports on how the government in Burundi is failing to safeguard the rights of its girls.

“Some families in Burundi arrange early and forced marriages for their girls. Regardless of it being forbidden by both civil law and the Christian churches, it still exists,” said Francine, (not her real name), a 16-year-old survivor of forced marriage. Francine was forced to marry a man aged 34, when her parents discovered she had been raped.

“From my experience, early child marriage is a violation of human rights for girls”, said Francine. It can also lead to early pregnancy, which will hinder the government’s family planning programme.”

Lack of legal protection

Although there are gaps in information about early and forced marriage in Burundi, it is clear the practice does exist. Worse still, the country does not have comprehensive laws and policies to protect and help young women threatened with a forced marriage. This creates a particular challenge for minors who go to an assistance centre after escaping a forced marriage.

In 1993, the Burundi Code of Person and Family was modified to make the legal age of marriage 18 years for women and 21 years for men.

However, a report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada on the frequency of forced marriages in Burundi stated that in 2010, there was no specific law punishing forced marriage and that prosecutions are rare.

Child marriage and HIV/AIDS

ASASS Burundi is a not-for-profit organisation which promotes sexual and reproductive health rights and provides HIV counselling and medical assistance for people without adequate resources. Its work includes helping girls and women stop early marriage.

According to ASASS-Burundi, early and forced marriage hinders efforts to prevent HIV transmission because early sexual contact puts girls at a higher risk of sexual health problems, including HIV infection.

Arnaud is a member of Engineers on Health and Rights for Development and ASASS-Burundi. He said: “Forced marriage undermines the abilities of girls or young women to make or negotiate sexual decisions, including whether or not to engage in sexual activity, the use of condoms to prevent HIV and contraception for protecting against undesired pregnancies. Also, a young girl’s ability to demand fidelity from their husband is damaged.”

Tatu was forced to marry when she was just 15. Now aged 20, with two children, she has been infected with HIV by her husband. “I was not ready emotionally or physically to have sexual relationships with a man,” said Tatu. “I face domestic violence and have been exposed to complications during pregnancy and birth.

“I have faced hardships in my life. If I had been born in a country of law, I would not have married. I have been unable to make my own decisions and my right to choose has been stolen. For this reason, I am vulnerable and living an unsafe life.”

Poverty and religious factors

ASASS-Burundi reports seeing forced marriages in rural areas where poverty is higher and access to education and other economic opportunities are limited.

Aisha is another survivor of early forced marriage. She said “My parents live in a disadvantaged community. Both are Catholic and they have roles in their church. When I was raped, my parents were convinced by other members of our family that it brings shame on our neighbors to know that a girl of church servants is pregnant at home. I was forced to marry my attacker and later found out he paid my parents 900,000 Franc Bu (about US$580). I know other cases of girls infected with HIV because they were forced by their parents to marry rich men outside the formal legal framework.”

According to Arnaud, encouraging girls to stay in school can help Burundi to reduce early and forced marriage, by promoting their rights. He also believes the media should break its silence on the issue and put pressure on the government to act. “By failing to prevent the early and forced marriage of girls, the government is also failing to safeguard the rights of children,” he said.