Traditional Marriages in Uganda: Okukiriza - Kidnapping Girls for Marriage

Traditional Marriages in Uganda: Okukiriza - Kidnapping Girls for Marriage

The practice called Okukiriza (lifting) is common among the Banyankole pastoralists who do not want to follow the right procedures of marriage, and even more so when a man thinks the family of the girl will refuse their marriage proposal.

By Risdel Kasasira
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First published: December 29, 2005

Having a beautiful daughter is a great thing to many a parent because everyone wants to be beautiful. But in some pastoral areas especially in western and central Uganda, having a beautiful daughter causes insecurity and worry to many girls and their parents.

In cattle keeping areas, especially among the Bahima and Banyarwanda, having beautiful girls has caused deaths, stress, rape and discomfort in many families. How?

It is a common cultural practice for men to ambush and kidnap girls they get interested in for marriage. Being a traditional cultural practice, it does not matter whether the girl is above or below 18 years. So long as the man sees her as "marriage" material, he can ambush her and marry her. Many women in these areas got married through this practice.

The practice called okukiriza (lifting) is common among the Banyankole pastoralists who do not want to follow the right procedures of marriage, and even more so when a man thinks the family of the girl will refuse their marriage proposal. It is done in many ways.

First, when a beautiful girl is identified, a man (sometimes helped by other men) lies ambushed around the homestead of the girl, waiting for her to come near and then grab her.

Some men have been known to use a neighbour who is used to the family. They send this neighbor to go and visit the girl's family as usual, only this time to ask the girl to accompany the neighbour. The man interested in the girl is usually waiting in the nearby bushes, and pounces on the girl and takes her away.

After the kidnapping, the girl is tied and taken to the "husband's" house and forced into sex intercourse. At the man's home, they select a number of strong men to guard the house to stop the girl from escaping and also to counter any fight that may come from the girl's family in an attempt to rescue her.

Eventually, the family members from the girl's side go to the kidnapper's house and the two families start marriage negotiations. But in some instances, the families fight and kill each other until one side wins. After things calm down, the girl's family is let to also grab anything they can from the man's home. Most times it is cattle, so the stronger the team you take, the more the cattle a parent can grab from his daughter's kidnappers.

This practice is common in Bukanga in the newly created Isingiro district, Kyenkwanzi in Kiboga and some parts of Masindi district where Bahima pastoralists are many.

However, in parts of Nyabushozi where this practice was common, it has reduced because police started arresting perpetrators of such kidnappings and charged them.

But in many places, it remains a hated but acceptable cultural marriage practice. "It could be due to the culture, which considers sex a sacred thing that this practice goes on without intervention of authorities in these areas," says a lady who was married through this practice of kidnapping.

Culturally, when a girl is publicly known to have had sex she is seen as having committed a shameful in these areas and that is the reason why the girl's family agrees to take cows instead of a girl who is already 'used'.

But when the captors are intercepted before forcing her into sex, the girl is taken back home.

Because of this cultural practice, some parents in these areas do not allow their teen daughters who are studying to go to the village during holidays to prevent their daughters from being grabbed. During holidays many students from these areas are sent to their relatives living in places where the practice is not common.

The kidnapping for marriage is normally practiced by illiterates who do not know that there are laws under which they can be prosecuted, like those against kidnapping, unlawful canal knowledge of women, or those stopping cultural practices that demean women.

Kembogo John from Igomba in Mpigi district where the practice is common was arrested, charged by the police and the girl's family took way over 50 herds of cattle after Kembogo 'lifted' a girl from a pastoralist family in Masindi.

Kembongo told Ultimate Media in an interview that he thought the practice is still ok. He says it is normally done by rich families, which have many herds of cattle.

"When the girl's side comes, they are allowed to access the kraal and take any number of cows they want," Kembogo says.

When Ultimate Media talked to some Bahima in Kampala who have lived in the villages where this kidnap for marriage is practiced, many said they are aware of this practice but it is becoming outdated in Ankole.

George Mugume from Nyabushozi says his brother is happily married to his wife he 'lifted' in the 1980s. He says many beautiful Bahima girls who hail from these villages have experienced fears of being kidnapped for marriage should they go back to their villages.

Edson Kabanda who is also from the same area with Mugume says it is a Kinyankole culture to practice okukiriza. He says that there are some girls who completely refuse their husbands even after a year and they go back to their parents no matter whether she is pregnant or not.

Kabanda who is a University graduate says lack of education is the main reason for this practice. He says he has relatives in Muyenje, Masindi and kidnapping for marriage is highly practiced. "Many marriages in this place are conducted in that way," he says.

He says when a man is old and wants to marry but knows it is hard to approach a family and be given a wife because of age, he also uses this kind forced marriage.

"It is hard to get a woman who can confess that she got married in that style but men think it is normal and admit it without hesitation," says Kabanda.

David Rwaburigunda says he got married to his wife through this style but almost got arrested after the father of the girl reported to the police about the disappearance of his daughter. After three days of searching it was found out that the girl had been taken by Rwaburigunda, but the two families decided to settle the matter out of court.

It is hard to imagine there are girls still getting married through this 'lifting' culture yet there are hardly any deliberate efforts by authorities in these areas, to fight kidnapping for marriage.

Some girls that are kidnapped for marriage in this style have been known to go on hunger strike and only eat or drink after they have been forced.

Other than making many young girls and their families live in fear that the girl could be 'lifted', the practice has denied many girls an education when they are kidnapped while schooling. The practice also denies the girls and their families' rights and dignity as human beings and is no doubt escalating the spread of HIV/AIDS to young girls.

But to make matters worse, many victims are unwilling to talk about it, leave alone report to it to authorities. The major force fighting this practice now is modernity, yet for many of such societies rooted in traditional practices, modernity is slow in coming.

Unless something is done about this kidnap for marriage practice in societies where it is still being practiced, it could be a cultural time bomb ticking to the detriment of young girls.

By Risdel Kasasira
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First published: December 29, 2005
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Risdel Kasasira is a graduate Journalist who reports for Ultimate Media Consult. He has worked for The Daily Monitor, Radio Uganda and has done several communication related consultancies. He is also the Research Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd.