Women file petition against bride price in Uganda's Constitutional Court

Women file petition against bride price in Uganda's Constitutional Court

Many Ugandans agree that the culture of bride price payment has become extremely commercialised, with parents looking at their daughters as monetary reserves.

By Gerald Businge
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First published: November 11, 2007


In many African cultures, a man is required to pay bride price to the family of the woman he intends to marry. It is one of the cherished traditions amongst many tribes and the ceremony that accompanies it sees a lot of merry making. Women activists, however, say that the payment of bride price is responsible for escalated violence and indignity against women.


The Mifumi Project, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Uganda, has mobilized people in the Tororo district of eastern Uganda to file a petition in Uganda's constitutional court to have the practice of paying bride price declared unconstitutional. Mifumi is a UK-based charity with an office in Mifumi village, eastern Uganda and a vision of making the world free from oppression and the burden of poverty and violence. What exactly, are the issues behind all this? Gerald Businge investigates.

After graduating from university last year, Moses Etuki and Mary Akello (not real names) wanted to formalize their relationship and start living together as husband and wife. Their romance started when they were both at Makerere University in 2002. Being in the same class and from the same tribe, their relationship had grown from strength to strength through out their university days. Etuki visited Akello's parents in Soroti district to ask for her hand in marriage. Akello's parents promptly asked for five cows, five sheep and five goats as bride price. They believed this was lenient enough to their future son in-law, who was still jobless. Even with such lenient terms, Etuki could not afford the bride price and asked his in-laws to release Akello and allow him some time to save for the bride price and bring it later. The parents accepted hesitantly and Akello soon became pregnant. Etuki accompanied Akello to hospital to deliver their first-born. Unfortunately, Akello died during childbirth in December 2005.

Akello's relatives arrived at Etuki's home and demanded for twenty cows, as tradition requires, before they could perform some cultural rites and bury Akello's body. This, they said, was because her bride price had not yet been paid. In Teso, women like Akello are culturally called atyono onuke (a woman who is 'difficult' to bury). This is a derogatory reference to women who are married to husbands who did not pay their bride price. In case such a woman dies, she is only buried after special traditional rites are performed. Of course, Etuki, who had failed to afford five cows, could not afford twenty to enable Akello's burial to proceed. In the end, friends and well-wishers who wanted Akello to receive a decent burial came to Etuki's rescue. However, no one forgot the unfairness of this particular Iteso tradition.

This case shows some of the problems surrounding bride price payment that Ugandan women and human rights activists are using to advocate for the abolition or at least, the reformation of the practice of bride price payment. Bride price payment, which is practiced in many African cultures, usually entails a male suitor paying money or livestock to the girl's parents. This mandatory practice has, of late, annoyed many Ugandans because of its glaring unfairness to the young couples involved. Many women have ended up becoming prisoners because of the bride price their partners paid, or did not.

During a recent international workshop on bride price at Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala, participants expressed concern that the failure to outlaw bride price is turning women into the property of their parents and husbands. It also discourages young men from marrying because they cannot afford the bride price attached to suitable ladies. Besides, it was pointed out, the practice reduces the dignity of women, who are treated as property that can be exchanged and are cursed if they are not paid for, as Akello's case illustrates.

Justice Margaret Oguli, whose family roots are in eastern Uganda (where Akello's case happened), says there is need to reform the practice of bride price payment in a way that reduces the violence and denunciation that many women suffer because of bride price. She says that many men who habitually beat up their wives cite the fact that they paid bride price for the women as proof that they can do as they wish with them.

Oguli says that many women from the Teso region and neighbouring tribes suffer a lot of violence from their husbands and live in sour marriages because they are required to refund the bride price should they opt to divorce their husbands. "It is not the woman who demands for the bride price. She does not even receive or handle it. Yet she is supposed to refund it if the marriage fails. Some women spend up to ten years toiling, sometimes in appalling conditions, to pay back bride their price," Oguli said. "Right now, there are many women from Teso in Kampala living in slums like Kisenyi, brewing malwa and other local gins to raise money to pay back their bride price after failed marriages," she added.

Patrick Ndira, the head of Programs Development at Mifumi, says that because women in Africa are generally perceived to be weak and powerless, many Africans believe that it is only through the payment of bride price to their parents that women can be made valuable. Many Ugandans agree that the culture of bride price payment has become extremely commercialised, with parents looking at their daughters as monetary reserves. Some parents choose to marry off daughters as young as fourteen or demand as high a price as they can, either in terms of heads of livestock or money.

"Many young ladies are cohabiting not because they want to, but because their partners cannot afford to marry them officially. Some parents are involved in syndicates that search for rich suitors for their daughters," said Anne Ature, a participant from Kenya. She said a baseline survey in Kisii and Meru districts of Kenya highlighted reproductive health issues for women that resulted from the practice of bride price payment. "We found that bride price payment does encourage domestic violence, especially marital rape," she told participants.

"Because men pay an arm and a leg for the women they marry, they feel they can do anything they want with the women. While conducting these beatings, a man will argue that he is herding his cattle (paid as bride price). When a woman wants to stop bearing children, especially if she has health problems, the husband may demand to know if the cows he paid stopped producing calves. Because of bride price, many women lose all their rights," said Atuki Turner, the Executive Director of the Mifumi Project.

Ature and Atuki say that many a woman for whom bride price was paid can never return to her father's home, even when mistreated by the husband. If she attempts this, the parents will normally send her back to her husband as most do not want, or cannot afford to pay back the bride price. Whatever the quantity or form, the bride price is always shared among the girl's relatives immediately it is paid. "We have found that women for whom bride price is not paid are free to go back to their fathers' homes if their marriages fail. Even then, it is often difficult to have a good marriage if bride price is not paid because African society always threatens such brides with banishment or wrecking their marriages. So, for most Ugandan women, you are damned if your bride price is paid, and you are damned if it isn't," Ature said.

The situation in Kenya mirrors that in Uganda. Ature said that 40% of the women interviewed in the Kenyan survey whose bride price had not been paid lived in fear since they will neither get the right to benefit from their husband's property and estate as widows nor will they be buried properly if and when they die. "In Meru, a woman recently committed suicide because she was being abused by her husband yet her family rejected her because they had not received her bride price."

Ature adds that bride price payment also encourages the practice of female genital mutilation (female circumcision) as parents rush to circumcise their daughters in order to marry them off and get a good bride price.

Monica Luwundo from the Tanzania Media Women's Association said that many people in Tanzania have also expressed their desire to see bride price payment reformed. "In our survey, men too were concerned about bride price. Some are required to pay up to 30 cows for a wife. Women are concerned about the requirement for bride price refund pegged against a successful divorce procedure.

"Young girls expressed concern that their rights are being violated. Bride price requirements are also increasing HIV infection rates as young girls sleep with sugar daddies to get money to give to their boyfriends to pay for their bride price. We found that some men refuse to look after their wives saying the money they would have used to do this was spent while paying the bride price. Yet a lot of importance is still attached to bride price in Tanzania. Many men would rather pay bride price for their wives than send their kids to school. Parents are forcing their daughters out of school and marrying them off to get bride price, especially in the form of bicycles," Luwundo revealed.

Mumele Lingiswa from the Western Cape Network Fighting Violence Against Women in South Africa said that while bride price brings a lot of misery to many women, it is the older women who encourage the bride price payment practice to continue. Many people also question the reality of abolishing bride price payment, which is a valued cultural practice. "In a survey carried out in South Africa, many people didn't want to abolish bride price but only to reform it to its original intention of a marriage gift, unlike today, when it is demanded for. In South Africa, there are more cases of domestic violence in white and colored communities than in the black communities which ask for bride price payments," Lingiswa said.

"That is why we are talking of a bride price reform. There are some good aspects to bride price payment, which we would like to continue. Nevertheless, there are negative ones too that should be done away with. It should be a gift, not demanded for and not refunded," says Grace Lwanga, who works with the Mifumi project in Soroti district.

The practice does not always result in violence, especially amongst many tribes like Buganda where bride price is treated as a gift. However, many participants at the workshop expressed concern that some women in Africa continue to support bride price payment because they believe that bride price adds value to them. Ature calls for a human rights based approach to fighting bride price payments in a way that highlights the deprivation of women's rights. These efforts should also encompass community sensitisation and empowerment. "We need to get cultural leaders on board in the fight against bride price so that there is community ownership of the drive, which is the only way we can bring about legal and policy changes," she said.

Fr. Paul Okoth of Tororo Diocese says that if the campaign against bad bride price is to be successful, the activists should focus on men, children, the youth and religious leaders. "We may need a moral voice to it," Fr. Okoth says. It will be interesting to see what Uganda's constitutional court decides on the matter.

By Gerald Businge
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First published: November 11, 2007
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Gerald Businge is a media practitioner and features Editor at Ultimate Media Consult in Uganda. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and several journalism and leadership certificates. He has been a practicing journalist since March 2001 and has worked at The New Vision as features writer, and has written extensively for different newspapers, magazines, newsletters in Uganda and internationally. He currently does fulltime media communication consultancy work as well as writing and editing at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd where he is a founding member and CEO. You can get his attention so long as you are interested in and you are working for a better world.