In parts of Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo there is a practice called bride kidnapping. A man abducts and rapes a woman, and then forces her to marry him in order to avoid cultural shame. In some cases, if a man’s first wife dies, he may choose to abduct her younger sister to be his second bride, because this means he will not have to pay the family a second dowry.
Thanks to one woman, there is a refugee camp in Tanzania where this horrific practice no longer occurs.
In 1996, the First Congo War, which has earned the nickname Africa’s First World War, was raging between Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, and Rwanda. Kiza’s province in Eastern Zaire was the most hotly contested area, so at 11 years old she fled home with her family, crossed Lake Tanganyika into Tanzania and settled in Nyarugusu refugee camp.
Kiza grew up in the camp, along with over 100,000 other refugees. She attended and graduated from high school, and later she began working as a teacher in the camp. She met her husband and was married, and she gave birth to five children in the camp clinic.
A few years ago, the UN announced that they needed volunteers to serve as representatives for refugees living in Nyarugusu’s many villages. Kiza volunteered to be a women’s representative. “In Congo, women could not speak in front of the men,” Kiza remembers. Through her job as a women’s representative, she learned about women’s rights and found her voice.
Kiza trained in conflict management and mediation, and she helped resolve small disputes and disagreements between community members. “If a husband and wife were fighting, I brought people from the community together to talk to them about their disagreement.” If someone made an allegation of rape or another more serious crime, Kiza would refer the case to more senior community leaders.
When Kiza heard about cases of bride kidnapping, she knew she had to do something. Kiza, along with the other community representatives and the camp’s religious leaders, both Christian pastors and Muslim imams met together. After many hours of discussion, everyone agreed that this practice was wrong, and together they committed to change their traditions. “Now,” Kiza says proudly, “this doesn’t happen in the camp anymore. Now every woman knows she has a voice.”
In 2017, after almost 20 years in Nyarugusu, Kiza and her family were accepted for resettlement in the U.S. Just a few months after arriving in Aurora, Kiza was already looking for ways to champion women’s rights in her new home and community. “There are women everywhere,” she declares, “so I knew I could make a difference in America, too!”
For now, she is focused on encouraging other Congolese and African women like herself. She wants to help them thrive in their new home, but she also wants them to use their transition to the U.S. as an opportunity to hold on to the beautiful traditions of their culture and let go of practices that are destructive. “Even though we are in America, we don’t want to lose our culture, she says. “It’s very important to keep [the good traditions] and not be ashamed to be African.”
Life in the refugee camp was filled with difficulty, and Kiza’s new life in the U.S. has challenges of its own. But her prayer for women in both places is the same: “I hope women will learn that they can speak what is in their heart.”