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"Men can take many wives; we can't register our children."

Why women in eastern DRC are campaigning for marriage registration

As part of our ‘Change Agents’ program, supported by the Dutch Government’s Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW) fund, selected women graduates of our 12-month training program in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are working together to tackle the barriers facing women and girls in their communities, and create a more positive environment for women’s rights and economic participation. Here we focus on one of the five priority areas they have identified for 2019: marriage registration.

A marriage certificate might sound like just a piece of paper, but for marginalized women in eastern DRC, it’s an important step towards greater security, self-reliance and securing rights.

“The two most common problems we find in our village are women’s inheritance rights and men getting married to many women”, says Alice, a graduate of our 12-month training program in DRC who, after participating in an intensive course to build her leadership and advocacy skills, now works as a ‘Change Agent’ in her community of Mumosho. Change Agents form small local groups to identify common barriers facing women in their area and develop action plans to bring them down.

The two issues Alice observes in Mumosho - inheritance and marriage practices - are closely connected.

"Most marriages in eastern DRC follow traditional customs and are not contracted under national laws. As a result, women have no legal protection and no rights to property, inheritance or child custody."

This means that they are left particularly vulnerable if they divorce or separate from their husbands or after the death of a spouse. They often face eviction from their homes, seizure of their land, and spiraling poverty.

Inequality is further reinforced by deep-rooted patriarchal cultural norms whereby men can take multiple wives, who then compete for resources. Polygamy has been described by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as a contravention of women’s rights, due to the serious emotional and financial consequences for women and children – including heightened risks of poverty and domestic violence.

Furthermore, without regulation or registration of customary marriages, there is no check against young girls being forced to wed, despite laws against underage marriage. According to UNICEF, 37% of girls in DRC are married before the legal age of 18, and 10% are married by their 15th birthday.

The children of unregistered marriages are also negatively affected. A marriage certificate is one of the requirements for registering a child’s birth in DRC and therefore having access to government services (such as healthcare and education), inherit property, and vote. Only 25% of children in DRC have a birth certificate, and the rights and protections it affords.

As a Change Agent, Alice is working to ensure that issues like unregistered marriages and unequal inheritance customs – which have such profound and far-reaching negative effects on the lives of women and children – are raised with local leaders and decision-makers, who have the power to challenge traditional norms and practices.

Women in DRC
A marriage certificate might sound like just a piece of paper but for marginalized women in eastern DRC, it’s an important step.

They are also bringing their communities together to discuss the barriers affecting women, understand the negative implications of gender inequalities on society as a whole, and collectively come up with solutions.

Change Agents like Alice believe that promoting and facilitating the legal registration of marriages is one tool that will help to empower women in their communities, allowing them to safeguard their rights and protect themselves and their children against poverty, exploitation and violence.

Over the past months, they have been working with local leaders to raise awareness of the importance of marriage registration, and encourage couples to register their union legally, including through community meetings, conducting campaigns on local radio, and lobbying authorities to reduce the costs of obtaining a marriage certificate.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll be sharing more about how Change Agents like Alice are mobilizing their communities to challenge harmful and discriminatory practices, and create sustainable, long-term change.