Stolen Lives: Bride Kidnapping in Africa

Following on from recent sad news from Kyrgyzstan, Africa, is on the agenda due to the widespread practices of the violent natured bride abductions despite numerous attempts to eradicate it throughout Africa by human rights groups.

The threat of bride kidnapping is one of the reasons for the restricted lives of women in certain areas of Africa especially in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The effects of bride kidnapping ranging from sexually transmitted diseases, marital rape, unwanted pregnancies, domestic abuse and verbal abuse it is no surprise that young women are afraid to step out of their homes.

Love isn’t an option for the women who are just statistics in these awful crimes against humanity.

This issue stems from deeper problems, which lie within gender based corruption in all aspects of social, family and work life in many African countries.




Rwanda has one of the most severe problems in regards to bride kidnapping due to the violent nature of the custom. Unlike in many cultures the kidnapping in Rwanda are more likely to end in repeated rape and impregnation.

The victimized women are usually taken from their household or just outside, to ensure that she submits to the marriage the man or men rape her. Due to social conventions surrounding ‘deflowered’ women and especially unmarried pregnant women most of the victims accept their fate.

In addition Human Rights watch has stated that a vast amount of the abducted women are abandoned or solemnized and used as a concubine. In a country where domestic violence is not illegal and bride kidnapping is not outlawed women are still under serious risk.  According to a criminal justice official in Rwanda bride kidnappers are very rarely seen and prosecuted in court. The official at the criminal investigation department in Nyagatare in Umutara has stated “When we hear about an abduction, we hunt down the kidnappers and arrest them... But we are forced to let them all go several days later”.

As long as bride abduction is not specifically outlawed we will have kidnappers roaming around freely on the streets continuing to threaten women and their freedom. As well as several women’s rights groups the gender and family promotion ministry have also been trying to take preventative steps. In an interview last year Alfred Karekezi, mentioned several 5 day workshops, which ‘provide all district officials in charge of gender and family promotion with relevant tools enabling them to increase awareness of gender principles in their districts.’

A Unifem report on violence towards women in Rwandan districts has revealed that 17% of women encountered their first sexual experience against their will and 13% of women suffer sexual harrassment in public on a day to day basis while attempted forced sexual intercourse rises to 40%. Out of the surveyed women 86% of them had undergone forced sexual intercourse or attempted sexual intercourse while 12% had suffered from sexual touching or undressing within family or familiar environments. The above statistics show us that women are not only in danger in public but suffer greatly in familiar environments too. This occurs especially if one is part of a majorly male dominated society.


As with Rwanda, there is a problem regarding gender equality and forced patriarchy in Somalia. This also leads to the victimization of women and problems within family relations.

As well as gender discrimination, Somalia has a notorious reputation on child labour and child abductions. Due to the complicated state of governmental issues many problems, which should be priorities including gender discrimination and child abductions are pushed to the bottom of the list.  However, United Nations Entity for Women has stated, “All governments are obligated under international law to undertake action to end harmful practices”. Bride Kidnapping in Somalia is one practice, which has not been given enough attention.

Regardless of the amount of initiatives by human rights groups this custom continues and is majorly undocumented not only in Somalia but also in the majority of countries this method of marriage prevails in. Although the practice of bride kidnapping is a terrible custom, certain Somalian societies allow the abduction of child brides often to men older than their fathers. This patriarchal system with very little protection towards women sees many forced marriages with under age girls who have been abducted and abused into wedlock even though the legal age is 18.

Zena Mahlangu who was abducted from school by two royal messengers to await marriage to thirty-four-year-old King Mswati III is a prime example. The King who Zena was abducted for was known to have another nine wives at the time.

Modern child bride abduction has serious effects in the long run for these young girls and society. Child abduction is motivated with the desire to marry virgin girls in the belief that they are free from diseases. With the loss of their virginity the girls are forced to either stay or harm themselves, as the return to their homes would bring dishonour to their families and community.

The juxtaposition of a modern scourge and an age-old practice render girl children even more vulnerable than before. Child and maternal deaths are also more prevalent in these instances we the physiology of these child brides are too underdeveloped to cope with the stresses brought on by their abductors. Not only have they been stripped of their future social and economic independence due to dropping out of school early but they have also been stripped of their innocent childhoods.


African Rights Monitor has stated that Ethiopia’s overall situation for women is one of the most precarious in the world “with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, limited political and legal resources for women, elevated rates of forced marriage, and female genital mutilation”.

Likewise to Somalia girls as young as 10 years old have been reported to have been kidnapped for the purpose of marriage in Ethiopia. These young girls and women are usually taken from their homes on horse back for an easier escape and raped repeatedly until the victim is pregnant.

Once the intended ‘bride’ is pregnant, the ‘groom’ as the unborn child’s father has ultimate control over the both of them, legitimizes the marriage by offering gifts or money to the bride’s family.

Many human rights groups over the years have tried to intervene and find a solution to this problem in Africa and other countries where bride kidnapping is a prominent cultural issue. However, it is a complicated and long process as not only do we have to change embedded patriarchal ideas but also push the governments into supporting their women. These crimes are on the rise and are becoming more violent by the day; these women must stop living in fear in their own homes.

A report initiated by the Women’s Affairs Office found that legally and institutionally women have been and still are extremely constrained. The Women In Development (WID) reports the lack of NGOs representing women, the deprivation of women in work and public spheres and cultural taboos are catalysts in the mistreatment of females within Ethiopian society.

What we can do to combat this issue?

At Restless Beings we are currently campaigning against bride kidnapping with a focus on Kyrgyzstan, we have recently received news that yet again one more young girl has committed suicide (please find the relevant article here) as a result of Ala Kachu. Although we are currently negotiating stronger ties within Kyrgyzstan we are also working on building relationships with other countries affected by this practice to create a network between the victimized women, to educate the younger generations to ‘Demand Change, Say No’!





Mabrur Ahmed

You see for me, as you mentioned in the article MelI, is that there are two root causes to these issues - on going patriarchy and the lack of support from the government. Patriarchy is something that is very difficult to change over a short time - but for governments to not outlaw barbaric bride kidnapping is simply inexcusable. We need to mobilize support in voice and numbers to lobby against these negligent Governments. The necessity for action is immediate. We live in a world where statistics are simply that - statistics - we cannot be desensitised to these stories. Empathy and not sympathy will lead to activism and not slacktivism.

18 June 2012 delete
Nadia Hussain

You're right Mabrur, but the two need to go hand in hand.
As we've seen in Kyrgyzstan, though bride kidnapping is illegal, it's still widely practiced and not policed effectively, with the men involved in kidnapping not being prosecuted. Why? Because the people, the community do not demand for it to be policed. The law must reflect the peoples attitudes for the situation to really change.

18 June 2012 delete
Hassan Hirsi

"The law must reflect the peoples attitudes for the situation to really change". Spot on Nadia! As usual, education is key. Government sponsored educational facilities for the prevention of FGM are present where the Somali populace is large in East Africa. FGM is seen as a cultural trait encouraged by women, and education has truly highlighted the issue. Bride napping on the other hand has been veiled under the idea of an inpenetrable patriarchial status quo. FGM (an act that's usually sanctioned by women) awareness targets the young female populace. Bride napping awareness should in the same sense target young males; bride napping itself should be made a taboo with the male populace

18 June 2012 delete
Mabrur Ahmed

Spot on Hassan. I think the biggest challenge when addressing the issue of patriarchy is to be able to provide a platform through which women feel comfortable to express their discontent. This platform must then be strong enough to get this message of discontent out to the masses. Education is the cornerstone to change and without that we cannot alter the psyche of the persecutors. Finally to add another conundrum, the issue of FGM in the African continent is often pushed through with religion. It is therefore a necessity for agencies to work alongside religious leaders to ensure the safe and abuse free treatment of women in their communities.

18 June 2012 delete
Jakril Hoque

The statistics on Rwanda are shocking and really hard to comprehend, 86% of the women surveyed experienced rape or an attempted rape. Makes you wonder where is the world's attention?

18 June 2012 delete
Mabrur Ahmed

The sad reality is that if mainstream media doesn't cover these issues, who else will?

18 June 2012 delete
Zeenat Islam

A very complex issue and as with all 'violations' embedded in culture/religion- we must be weary of 'human rights imperialism.' The question of whose rights are we championing/imposing. There is a fine balance to strike. Whilst I personally agree that education is the key here I'm not sure how much confidence I have in law. Whilst prohibiting certain acts under the law certainly has a symbolic power, enforcement may be a different issue. I read something about the move towards forced marriages being made illegal in the UK by a woman who herself had been forced into marriage- her view was that prohibiting it under the law would only force the issue underground as people would be too scared to come forward and initiate proceedings, give evidence etc. I think parallels can be drawn to issues surrounding bride kidnapping, FGM etc. I think the way forward has to be characterised by a bottom up approach as opposed to top down.

18 June 2012 delete
Mabrur Ahmed

so what is your suggestion then, what does bottom up really mean?

prohibition by law is a starting point, and if nothing else, it should at the very minimum be outlawed - not doing so is more symbolic of a Government that has no issue with gender violations - I agree that, like in Kyrgyzstan, outlawing issues like ala kachuu is little more than an empty move.

education does not need to be in the shape of 'human rights imperialism' - it needs to be in the shape of giving those who are on the brunt of violations an opportunity to talk about why they feel like they have been wronged and then to use that information to inform those who perpetrate against the violated tot educate them of how their actions are wrong. That same information can be used for those who cannot see how their actions have implications and/or those who are either unaware or are indifferent to the consequences of self driven action.

18 June 2012 delete
Zeenat Islam

Yeah I completely agree with you. By bottom up- I'm talking about people, activists, grassroots, civil society. As opposed to top down- red tape bureaucracy and empty promises of change by our policy makers/decision makers in positions of power. My background is law and whilst I am sceptical of its impact alone- coupled with a grassroots movement - tangible change is realisable. The human rights imperialism concern is an issue with some of the big boy organisations who need to ensure sensitivity to local traditions. The way around this- is what you refer to above- a platform for mutual dialogue and exchange amongst the actual people concerned- and for them to shape the agenda accordingly- rather than one that's imposed.

18 June 2012 delete
Mabrur Ahmed

We're on the same page. :)

19 June 2012 delete
Eirteqa Sultan

the stats are absolutely horrifying, 86% of the women surveyed experienced rape or an attempted rape!!! its the whole dilemma of law vs. cultural tradition which allows these practices to still continue.

19 June 2012 delete