Polygamy is not only illegal, but also bad for women
Despite polygamy being illegal in Rwanda, there are still cases where a man is found to have two, sometimes even three wives, and he is not legally married to any of them. This can create quite some conflict in the family, especially when it comes to matters of succession, land ownership and financial matters.
According to Jean-Chrisostome Mutsindashyaka, a lawyer with Haguruka, an association that defends women and children’s rights, in case the husband is already legally married to and lives with another woman, it is considered as adultery and is punishable by the Rwandan law, both the husband and the other woman are punished.
“When it comes to matters of ownership of property, the wife that is recognized by the law is the one who gets to share with the husband,” he explains, adding that the husband will nevertheless be responsible to provide for the children he conceived with the other woman, from his share of the property.
This is due to the fact that the law actually protects the children and stipulates that they have rights to both their parents and their properties. It is clear to Mutsindashyaka that in case of the husband’s death and matters of succession and inheritance that come with it, if the other woman has no children from the man, she will go empty-handed unless the man made special provisions for her.
To Thomas Hakizimana, from the land registration office of Gasabo district, disputes of this kind are not so common, at least in his area, mainly because polygamy happens more in rural areas where husbands usually give a house and plot of land to each wife. “But when he is legally married to any of the women, she is the one whose name will also be put on the papers,” remarked Hakizimana.
But things get really complicated when the man did not marry any of the women he was living with and even had children with. In this case, if the man dies, the property is shared equally between the women and their children. But other complications can arise in matters of ownership.
Who gets compensation?
A good illustration of the problem is one family in Gasabo district (which we do not identify for reasons of privacy), where the husband has two wives, one with 5 children and the other with 4 children, and is not legally married to any of them. When the people in their neighborhood had to be relocated, a dispute erupted over who should receive compensation.
This confusion was due to the fact that the husband is alive but incapacitated and unable to take any decision and the older woman, whose older child was supposed to inherit according to a document the father wrote in 1993, says she built the house together with the husband and claims she should be the one to receive the money; but the younger woman, who is living with the man, contests this, asking where she is supposed to go with her children and the man.
“In this case, none of the women have any claim to the property for neither of them is legally married to the man,” Mutsindashyaka explained. “The man is the one to receive the compensation and then allocate to them what he wants for he is responsible for his children before the law.”
As to the fact that the older woman in this case insists her children should be the ones to get the money as it is supposed to be their inheritance, Mutsindashyaka points out that it is not possible to apply succession laws as the man is still alive.
To both Mutsindashyaka and Hakizimana, it is clear that in such matters and disputes, women, especially those who did not get married legally, are the ones who suffer the most and who can lose everything for they are not protected by the law, which is not the case for their children as the law protects their rights to the parents’ properties.
It is clear that such problems are caused by the fact that some women don’t yet seem to grasp the importance of legal marriage. “I don’t think that being married or not is the problem,” expressed one of the women in the above case. “The way I see it, you can be unmarried and still live in peace, which matters a lot more.” For her, the cause of these problems is not being unmarried, but rather people refusing to be reasonable.
Hakizimana and Mutsindashyaka urge women who still have this kind of view on legal marriage not to rush into unions where they are not married, as even if they build everything from scratch with their partners, they can easily lose it all if the man ever decided to cheat them out of it, or throw them out whenever they please.