Bordered by countries like Uganda, Malawi and Kenya where homosexuality is severely penalised, Tanzania isn’t the most LGBT-friendly country either.
In fact, homosexuality is illegal in the country and can be punished by life imprisonment.
Last month, Tanzania’s health minister even decided to ban personal lubricants in the country in the hope that men will be less inclined to sleep with each other.
Yet, in a remote village in the northern part of the country, same-sex marriages among women are rising in popularity.
In the Kurya tribe, a cattle-herding community with an estimated population of 700,000 spread across northern Tanzania, a longstanding tradition allows women to marry each other.
According to Marie Claire magazine, Kurya women get into same-sex marriage so as to retain control over their assets, and property in the absence of husbands. The independence also gives them more power and freedom over their way of life.
Tanzanian reporter Dinna Maningo described female marriages, also known as ‘nyumba ntobhu,’ as an alternative family structure that has existed for many years.
‘Nobody knows when it started, but its main purpose is to enable widows to keep their property,’ she said.
By Kurya tribal law, only men can inherit property. So when a woman without sons is widowed or her husband has left her, she may choose to marry another woman.
The women would run their homes just like any other married couple — they live, work, raise kids and sleep together. However, they do not have sex.
Maningo said that the custom is different from same-sex marriages in the West as homosexuality is strictly forbidden.
‘Most Kurya people don’t even know gay sex exists in other parts of the world,’ she explained. ‘Especially between women.’
The women can take male lovers though, and based on the tribal law, any children that result will belong to the female marriage.
Maningo also shared that ‘nyumba ntobhu’ is undergoing some sort of a ‘modern revival.’
Taking a stand against Kurya’s polygamous, patriarchal culture, where men use cows as currency to buy multiple wives, there are more and more Kurya women choosing to marry each other instead.
‘They realise 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.’
These marriages not only help prevent domestic abuse, but also child marriage and female genital mutilation, which Maningo said are ‘rife’ in their community.
‘Younger women are more aware these days, and they refuse to tolerate such treatment,’ she added.
Women in same-sex marriages are protected from male violence, and the tribe law also rules that perpetrators must pay a fine of livestock to the women and repair any damage to their property.
Autonomy within the same-sex households also mean that more girls are spared from early marriage and enabled to pursue higher education.
However, a catch to ‘nyumba ntobhu’ marriages is that they are not recognised in Tanzanian law, only in tribal law.
One of the issues arising from this is that men who father children still have legal paternal rights.
Though, most Kurya men would not dare to disobey formidable tribal elders, who support the same-sex unions, and would likely choose to honor the tribe’s custom and give up their rights.
According to Kurya elders, the tribe—one of more than 120 in the country of 55 million people—has about 10-15% of its household made up of female couples.
You can read the full article which includes stories of different women at Marie Claire.
This article also appears in the August issue of the magazine.
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