I'm Consolata, and I am 37 years old. I only completed the 6th grade when my parents withdrew me from school. They said, “6 years of education for a girl is enough. The most important diploma for a girl is a husband.” At 16, I got married to a 37 year-old man who has another wife. My parents forced me, since they had already taken money for my dowry. I did not want to get married. When I tried to resist this forced marriage, my father told me that I had to go, or he would throw me out of his house, so I had to obey.
I didn’t enjoy my marriage. As a second wife, I could not be legally married. My husband’s first wife hated me, and we were always fighting. My husband would not give me money to support myself, even though he earns a lot of money. He beat me, and I had nowhere to go for support. He sold the property where I used to grow food. I tried to stop him, but I couldn’t. I was obliged to work for others to feed my children. I just lived in lowliness. I could not even attend the Mass because I was a second wife and not legally married. I was obliged to stay at home with no friends.
Consolata is not alone. Nearly 23% of girls in Burundi marry before age 18
because their families do not think they are worth much. In Burundi, even the language tells girls that they are not important. Girls are called “umukobwa,” which literally means “intended for bride price.”
For many families in Burundi, there is no point in investing in a girl, since she will be someone else’s property eventually. The bride price is a tradition common in Africa where a girl’s parent receive money in order to marry her to a man. After that, she belongs to him and his family. For the few years they do live with their parents, girls are expected to take responsibility over household chores that prepare them for their future roles as wives: cooking meals, fetching firewood, carrying water, and caring for infants.
Girls in Burundi can’t inherit property, and have few options to earn and income and support themselves. They have to rely on husbands or fathers to support them and provide social respectability. Having little value to society as individuals doesn’t just put girls at risk of becoming child brides, it also makes them vulnerable to abuse once they are married, just like Consolata’s case.
Fortunately, Consolata’s story gets a happy ending. In 2009, Consolata joined the CARE project Umwizero, a Village Savings and Loan program. In addition to the economic training and support, and support for women to improve their social and political status, Umwizero provides a social support group for women. The women in Consolata’s group gave her a social network and a chance to talk about her problems.
Through Umwizero, Consolata took a loan of $5 US and in three years turned it into $1000 in land and assets that she purchased and registered in her own name—quite a feat for a woman that no one believed had any value.
She is pushing back on all of the messages that tell women they don’t matter, and that girls are only worth the price another family is willing to pay.
Here’s what Consolata has to say about her experience.
Now I lead all of the training on savings and loans for women and men who live in my region. In 2013, I was elected to the National Women's Forum steering committee. This position gives me an opportunity to help other women, especially
young girls who are going through the same situation. This year I have helped 6 young girls both in 6th grade whose parents have already accepted brideprice and are planning to get them married. With support, the parents pay back the money and the girls remain at school.”
About the Program: CARE has been working in Burundi since 1994, and currently supports 2600 Village Savings and Loan Associations. The Umwizero program works with 136,000 women to improve their economic, social, and political status. Women in the program achieve increased financial security and ability to stand in against the "crises" and unforeseen events and more control over their own finances means sexual and reproductive health. Read more about CARE’s work on Child Marriage and Women’s Economic Empowerment.
About the Author: Générose NZEYIMANA joined CARE International Burundi in February 2005. She is the Team Leader of the Protection and Empowerment Program, which includes Umwizero. Générose has a strong passion for addressing gender, equity and diversity in CARE and in communities.