Meet Leya. Leya is sixteen years old. Leya is one of 8 children. Her father was killed by bandits in his own home; Leya, her mother, and her siblings barely escaped with their lives. Leya’s mother has remarried, since life for a single woman with children is extremely difficult. Leya works all day in her stepfather’s rice paddy, then comes home and prepares food for the family. Leya’s stepfather sends her out to the rice paddy by herself, which means that she is more likely to be kidnapped and raped by rebels or soldiers. She is three years behind in school.
Recently, a man has noticed Leya in town, and he wants her. He has entered into negotiations with Leya’s stepfather to marry Leya. The stepfather wants to marry Leya off because the suitor will have to pay him for Leya’s hand. In any case, soon the rice harvest will be over, and the stepfather will have little use for Leya.
I first met Leya when I visited her family’s home, set on a wind-swept hillside overlooking the tiny village of Kiliba. I had come for a weekend visit with her older brother Isidord, who lives in Uvira. When we arrived, Leya’s suitor was sitting and talking with the stepfather. The suitor appeared to be in his late twenties. Isidord was furious when he found out that his stepfather was trying to marry Leya off. In Congolese culture, responsibility for accepting marriage proposals passes to the oldest male sibling in the event the father has died, not the stepfather. There was one complicating factor: Leya indicated that she would prefer to marry this complete stranger than to continue the miserable work in her stepfather’s rice paddy.
Isidord explained to his family that Leya was only sixteen, hardly a good age to get married to a much-older man. In any case, Isidord said, what kind of grown man is interested in a sixteen-year-old girl? This suitor cannot be up to much good. Leya’s suitor also claimed he was a successful businessman. Isidord pointed out that “businessmen” in this area live a very “fast” life, often having a different woman in every town. It is also not uncommon for Congolese men to abandon a woman once she becomes pregnant. If Leya married this man, it would be almost guaranteed that she would become pregnant within a month. Leya’s older sister Bintu had been abandoned by her “fiancé” once she had become pregnant. Now Bintu is shamed before the entire village, and she will soon deliver a child the family can barely afford. Isidord asked Leya if she wanted to end up like her older sister. Even worse was if Leya left Kiliba to live in another town, became pregnant, and was abandoned by her “husband”; then everyone would think she was a prostitute. Indeed, many single mothers in the DRC are forced to resort to prostitution, since they are already stigmatized and lack a means of support.
Isidord wanted Leya to return to school and only start thinking about marriage when she reached the proper age. He explained to Leya that marriage wasn’t the only way out of her current situation, and enduring a few more years in the rice paddy was better than a lifetime of suffering in a marriage to a stranger. If Leya focused on getting her education, she might be able to make decisions for herself and be able to choose a better husband once she was of age.
Isidord told the suitor that he wanted him to wait for two years until Leya was 18; if he was truly interested, then he would be willing to wait for two years. Both the stepfather and the suitor protested, saying that Leya was physically already a woman, and it was about time she got married. However, Isidord stood firm in his decision. The suitor left. Isidord told his sister to resist the advances of men and wait until he got enough money to move her to Uvira so she could start school again.
Back in Uvira, Isidord was still worried. He told me that his stepfather would be leaving Kiliba for an entire year to sell his rice in another town. This would leave little support or protection for his mother and siblings. He also said that the suitor might nevertheless try to get Leya pregnant, by seduction or by force. Isidord is hoping to save enough money to move his entire family to Uvira once his stepfather leaves.
Leya’s situation is not uncommon in the DRC. Women have little protection from violence and poverty in the DRC, and thus marriage seems to be a good option that may provide some sort of support and shelter. However, society is very permissive for men, but restrictive for women. Thus women often come out on the bottom, abandoned and vulnerable in a dangerous environment. On the other hand, there are people like Isidord who want to bring equality for women in their society and culture. In the midst of constant war and upheaval, this is a difficult task. One hopes that Leya will find a future that is better than the one preordained for her and so many other Congolese girls.
Posted By Walter James
Posted Jun 15th, 2009