Misery in Matrimony
As young girls growing up in Rwanda, Edie* and Cynthia* dreamed of their weddings. Like many girls, they pictured the perfect day where family and friends would gather to celebrate love.
In Rwandan culture, weddings are important occasions that symbolize the union of two families. It is tradition for the bride and groom to consult with their family and wait for consent before planning the wedding.
For Edie and Cynthia, their longtime dreams did not become reality. No traditions were followed. No personal or parental consent was obtained. Both girls were forced, at 17 and 15 years old, to marry strangers in a foreign country.
A female trafficker brought Edie and Cynthia from Rwanda to a village in the western part of Uganda with promises of work. There, the minors were lured into early and forced marriages. The trafficker was given $70 for each of the arranged unions—a small and degrading price for human lives that should never have been for sale. Forced labor and sexual exploitation followed for Edie and Cynthia. They were not allowed to move around the village and did not know the native language. Physically and verbally confined, the girls were isolated with little hope of rescue.
An observant and responsible citizen in the village recognized the odd behavior and tipped off police. Local authorities raided the homes where the minors were being held captive. One husband was arrested and taken into custody for a statement. The other husband fled.
Police contacted the coordinator of the Anti-Trafficking Task Force in Uganda who placed the girls in Willow’s residential aftercare program. In Willow’s loving home, the girls were provided with individualized treatment to heal from trauma. Another important part of the healing process was their ability to seek justice through Willow’s Legal Services Program.
A case was filed against the traffickers and sent to Mpigi Court. The suspects requested bail, a constitutional right in Uganda, and the case proceeded. Witnesses were called into court to give evidence. The case dragged on due to lack of education surrounding trafficking. Willow representatives had to provide the judge with a copy of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2009 during the hearing and court officials did not treat the case with the urgency and seriousness it demanded.
Despite these challenges, Willow’s Legal Services Program Director refused to give up on Edie and Cynthia. She was instrumental in educating the local police to open up a case against the men who purchased the girls. Although one man is still a wanted suspect, the main trafficker who recruited the minors from Rwanda was convicted of aggravated trafficking for her role in the forced marriages. Edie and Cynthia were relieved to know that the crimes committed against them did not go unpunished.
In 2018, 16 survivors received legal aid services and 16 cases are currently under investigation with Willow’s support. Over 100 key government officials were trained on the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act and 150 judges and court officials received education on anti-trafficking laws. Willow’s Legal Services Program will continue to educate local leaders while advocating for the rights of all survivors.
*Pseudonym to protect survivor’s identity.