For Rwanda's Poor, Working And Weddings Arrive Far Too Early

Whole families are forced to leave Rwanda's struggling north. Boys look for work at an early age; the girls, instead, all too often are pushed to get married across the border in Uganda.

In Kigali, Rwanda
In Kigali, Rwanda
R.Akalikumutima, E. Safi and M. Umukunzi

REMERA - The citizens in this northern region of Rwanda have too many children and not enough arable land.

Small children eat sweet potatoes amid houses in Remera that are cramped together. Their parents work the fields during the morning hours, while afternoons for the adults are often spent in the cafes for men, and outside chatting in groups for the women.

“After farming, we rest,” says one man. But the truth is that in the Musanze district’s farming sector, yields are very small and typically do not require a full day’s work. The lack of productive agriculture or industry means that more and more of the population prefer to find work in other regions so they can feed their families.

East of here, land is less populated, and demand for farming-related labor is higher. There is also more fertile space open to cultivation. But too often, those who go are quite young. “We notice more and more children who leave school,” says Dusingize Jeanne Providence, a teacher in Remera. “Their classmates tell us they moved to the East with their families.”

Young girls, old husbands

The girls, for their part, go to Uganda where they may have the chance to marry older rich men capable of caring for their financial needs. “They accept being concubines,” says a sister of the Charity Centre of Remera. “Imagine a 20-year-old girl as the fourth or fifth woman of some old man.”

A few years ago, Clémentine Muhawenayo remembers, some shady operators started taking advantage of the situation — seeing a business model in these desperate attempts to have financial security and charging a commission from girls who were looking for a husband. “Once they would arrive there, they would get their dowry saying they were members of the family,” Muhawenayo says.

The girls who want to avoid getting married so early go look for a job in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, some 100 kilometers away, or in the neighboring small towns where they may become housekeepers. The boys who find work in construction sites in cities around the country often are able to help their siblings back at home.

The massive number of departures from Remera is linked to the lack of land in the region relative to the growing population. Most of the inhabitants still believe “Harera Imana,” or that God feeds. They believe children bring wealth, and so the average number of children in the region is five or six per family, which makes for a dense population. The latest regional census in August 2012 put the population density of Remera at 739 inhabitants per square kilometer, compared to the national number of 416 inhabitants per square kilometer.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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