Why teen mothers can’t find justice

Saturday July 6 2019

Teen

Victims of early pregnancies continue to suffer maltreatment due to failure to get legal assistance.Photo | Cyril NDEGEYA 

ARAFAT MUGABO
By ARAFAT MUGABO
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Twenty-year-old Bugingo (not her real name) was a Senior Four student at a high school in Kigali when she conceived through an alleged rape ordeal.

Her father had introduced the man responsible for the pregnancy to the family as a friend.

“He started to visit me in school claiming that my father had sent him, and kept asking me to visit him, but I declined the requests” said Bugingo.

“Then one day my father sent me to the man’s home to collect a suit that he had borrowed from him. That was when he abused me. When I told him that I was pregnant, he threatened to hire people to kill me. My parents asked me not to report the matter because it was against the norms.”

The man responsible has since disappeared from the area, she said.

Bugingo is yet to return to school and spends her time tending to her three-year-old son at her parent’s home. She is among the growing number of girls who suffer sexual violence and early pregnancy in silence because it is taboo to report male offenders who are relatives or family friends largely due to patriarchy. The age of consent is 18.

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“Unless the government intervenes and arrests parents who stop their children from reporting sexual violence many will never know justice,” she said. “This is how my future ended and now I’m among the many starving young mothers in Kigali.”

A 2016 report by Cladho, the umbrella of human rights organisations in Rwanda found that 99 per cent of victims of early pregnancies reported not receiving legal assistance.

The study further showed that 49 per cent of teenagers were impregnated by colleagues, 75 per cent got pregnant as a result of sexual violence and 25 per cent from voluntary sexual intercourse.

But Theophile Mbonera who heads the Ministry of Justice’s legal services department said that the lack of information from victims of early pregnancies and sexual violence is the greatest setback to justice.

“The claim that there is a lack of information on where and how to seek justice is false. The Ministry of Justice has established Access to Justice Bureaus in every district, with three lawyers each to assist poor and vulnerable people access free services,” said Mr Mbonera. “Over the past five years, the ministry has also invested in public sensitisation on the free legal services; we even hold the legal aid week every year in each district to raise awareness.”

She added: “We have done a lot and we continue to do more to ensure access to justice for all, but we request the public to use the available strategies as we seek other ways to ensure the support reaches everyone.”

The executive director of Rwanda Women’s Network Mary Balikungeri, said there is a need for a shift in how violence against women is handled.

“We plan to hold talks between policymakers and young people on issues that suppress women,” said Ms Balikungeri. “Women continue to be suppressed by cultural norms in our patriarchal societies. People need to know that times have changed and they have to change too and respect women.”

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