Straight women in Tanzania are marrying each other

Same sex marriages are on the rise between straight women in Tanzania.

In a remote village in northern Tanzania, same-sex marriages between straight women and widows from the Kurya tribe has seen a revival in popularity recently. The Kurya tribe, a cattle-herding community with a population of 7, 00,000 has a centuries-old tradition, called ‘nyumba ntobhu’ or ‘house of women’. The longstanding tradition allows women to marry each other in order to preserve their homes and lifestyles in the absence of husbands.

According to Tanzanian journalist Dinna Maningo, straight women marry and run their household in the same manner as a heterosexual married couple. The unions allow for women to live, cook, work, sleep and raise families together, but no part of their union involves sex, and the Kurya tribe forbids homosexuality. “Most Kurya people don’t even know gay sex exists in other parts of the world. Especially between women,” Maningo told Marie Claire magazine.

Under the custom, a woman is allowed to marry a younger woman if she is widowed or her husband leaves her, and she has no male heir. This tradition allows her to keep the family home which is jointly owned with the younger woman, despite a Kurya tribal law which decrees that only males can inherit property. The younger woman is then able to take a male companion and potentially give birth to male heirs on the older woman’s behalf.

Kurya women are now only waking up to the fact that they can use the ‘house of women’ option to find a secure home devoid of the domestic and sexual violence traditional heterosexual marriages often carries with it. In 2013, a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare showed that 45% of women aged 15 to 49 had experienced sexual or physical violence in the home. Therefore, same-sex marriages between straight women are believed to help reduce the propensity of domestic violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) that are rife within the tribe.

Female couples currently make up 10–15% of the Kurya households.

“They realize the arrangement gives them more power and freedom,” Maningo said. “It combines all the benefits of a stable home with the ability to choose their own male sexual partners,” said Maningo.

The tribal elders are also accepting towards the ‘nyumba ntobhu’ practice. “They solve the problem of what to do about widows. A widow gets to keep her property, and she does not become a burden when she gets old. No man wants to marry a woman who can no longer bear him children,” chief tribal leader Elias Maganya was quoted in an online article on Vagabomb.

The report was gathered by Marie Claire magazine.

“By Kurya tribal law, only men can inherit property, but under ‘nyumba ntobhu’, if a woman without sons is widowed or her husband leaves her, she is allowed to marry a younger woman who can take a male lover and give birth to heirs on her behalf,” the magazine reports.

Mugosi Maningo and Anastasia Juma got married in June 2015, and say their marriage has given them more liberty and freedom over their lives. Mugosi’s husband abandoned her 10 years ago, while Juma had survived a forced marriage at the age of 13 where her previous husband treated her “like a slave”.

“I certainly didn’t want another husband. Marrying a woman seemed the best solution,” said Juma

“The marriage is working out better than I could have imagined. I wasn’t sure at first, because it was such a new experience — now, I wouldn’t choose any other way.” Mugosi and Juma share an equal relationship by diving everything equally. Disagreements over paternal rights are believed to be rare when ‘nyumba ntobhu’ is enforced.

Another woman, Mugosi Isombe, said: “Nobody can touch us. If any men tried to take our property or hurt us, they would be punished by tribal elders because they have no rights over our household. All the power belongs to us.”

As flowery and perfect as the practice sounds, nyumba ntobhu marriages have their own lapses. Many younger wives have stolen their older wife’s crops and run away with the children after falling in love with their boyfriends.

Some marriages can turn abusive too. 17-year-old Eliza Polycap was married to a much older wife where she was forced to have sex with as many men as possible so she could get pregnant.

“She didn’t care about me at all. She just wanted children, and she treated me like I wasn’t human. We have to be careful not to blindly believe that all Nyumba Ntobhu marriages are safe. Sometimes they just mirror our society’s general culture of abuse toward women,” Polycap told Marie Claire magazine.

Human rights activists remain concerned about Tanzania’s attitudes to women and the lack of governmental efforts to curb gender-based violence. An estimated 1,000 older women in Tanzania are accused of witchcraft and killed every year in accordance with tradition.

It remains an uphill task for Tanzanian women and girls to receive access to formal education due to traditional attitudes that force many to drop out of school and university to pursue household duties.