Unmarried couples in the East African country of Burundi have until the end of the year to legalise their relationships through church or state registrations.
In May, President Pierre Nkurunziza signed a new law which the government says will help protect women and create a more moral society, but some disagree.
The law according to President Pierre Nkurunziza is expected “to moralise society” where he urges Burundians to show their love for each other and their country by getting married.
The government has since been pressuring unwed couples across the country to tie the knot.
Terence Ntahiraja, interior ministry spokesman, told the AFP news agency that Burundi was facing a population explosion, which he blamed on “illegal marriages”, polygamy, bigamy and “hundreds of schoolgirls getting pregnant”.
He said church and state-sanctioned weddings were the solution and were a patriotic duty.
Authorities in the southeastern province of Rutana have ordered that “persons living in common-law unions” should be put on a special list by 22 June, while officials in northwestern Bubanza province have demanded unspecified “sanctions” against aisle-dodgers.
‘Positive traditional values’
Pierre, a 27-year-old farmer living with his partner in Ngozi, in Burundi’s north, said local officials had threatened him with a 50,000 Burundian franc ($29) fine and said any child born out of wedlock would not be eligible for free education and medical costs.
Pierre said he had not married because he could not afford the bride price demanded by his girlfriend’s family.
“She told me she was pregnant. As I am poor, we decided to come together to raise our child,” he told AFP. “We thought we would legalise our union as soon as we could afford it.”
That was five years ago and the couple is now onto their third child.
To enact the president’s orders, officials have begun organising mass weddings, something one civil society activist opposed as “a violation of human rights because the state has no right to attack two adults who have decided to live together without being married”.
The activist said the forced marriages were part of a “religious crusade” led by Nkurunziza and his wife, both fervent, born-again evangelical Christians.
Ntahiraja, the ministry’s spokesman, dismissed such arguments saying the government’s campaign was within the law.
“We want Burundians to understand that everyone is responsible for his life, we want order in this country,” he said.
“All this is done within the framework of the patriotic training programme,” he added, referring to an initiative launched by Nkurunziza in August 2013 to reinforce “positive traditional values.”
Since 2015, when Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term, at least 500 people have been killed in political violence while around 400,000 have fled Burundi for refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
The government insists a legal document recognising a marriage helps protect women and their children, especially when it comes to issues such as inheritance.
However, others say the new marriage law infringes on people’s religious beliefs, customs and practices.