Uganda: A Price Above Rubies

”We are going to shout about bride price across Africa and we are going to say 'no' to the sale of women,” exclaimed Atuki Turner to a crowded hall at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
Turner was speaking at the opening this week of the first international conference on the tradition of bride price.
Asma'u Joda, Programme Coordinator for Africa south of the Sahara, participated on behalf of WLUML and presented a paper entitled, 'Some Thoughts on Bride Price' which dealt with commonly held conceptions and assumptions of bride price around the world with a particular focus on practices in Muslim communities.

The groundbreaking event was organised by Mifumi, a women's non-governmental organisation (NGO) in rural eastern Uganda. It brought together activists from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa to discuss the effect that payment of bride price has on women. Delegates also talked about ways of eliminating this practice in Africa and elsewhere.

Bride price is one of the most widespread and entrenched cultural institutions in Africa. It requires a man to give money and possibly goods such as livestock and foodstuffs to his bride's family.

Although the tradition varies from place to place, women's rights activists say that in most cases it contributes to gender inequality and domestic violence. Turner, Mifumi's Executive Director, said that in Uganda and various other countries there were no laws governing bride price.

Many conference participants argued that the bride price has outlived its original purpose, which was to be a token of appreciation that cemented the bond between two families. Miria Matembe, a prominent member of parliament in Uganda, said the tradition was now an excuse to accumulate wealth - with a bride's family routinely demanding large numbers of livestock, as well as cash and other presents.

”The girl's parents look at her as a source of income and demand too much from the groom's side. Once the groom has paid so much, he starts looking at his wife as property,” Matembe said. ”Bride price perpetuates the low status of women and keeps them in bondage.”

In some countries, such as Uganda, men demand a full refund of the bride price if a marriage ends. This effectively prevents women from leaving abusive marriages.

Domestic violence is a serious problem in Uganda, but still rarely discussed in public. Beatrice Apolot, from the eastern town of Tororo, told the conference about her ordeal at the hands of her husband, who battered her in 2000. ”I was bedridden, I could hardly talk, I was helpless,” she said.

Apolot is now an activist with Mifumi, where she assists other survivors of domestic violence. She has found bride price to be the major contributing factor to spousal abuse.

In December 2001, Mifumi conducted a referendum in Tororo Province as part of a two-year campaign on the bride price. Sixty percent of respondents voted that the price should become a non-refundable gift.

In addition, men who have paid for their brides often expect complete acquiescence when it comes to sex.

Noerine Kaleeba, founder of the AIDS Support Organisation - an NGO that is leading the fight against HIV in Uganda - said families were marrying off their daughters at increasingly younger ages as a result of the pandemic.

However, young women in these marriages were unable to refuse sex - or insist that their husbands wore condoms, something which made them vulnerable to contracting HIV. ”You have been paid for, so how are you able to negotiate in this relationship?” asked Kaleeba.

Despite a wealth of evidence about its injurious consequences, activists face considerable challenges in their efforts to do away with the bride price. Traditionalists in many countries see the practice as an essential part of local cultures, which they are fighting to preserve.

Ironically, many women also approve of the tradition. Matembe said that women in rural areas of Uganda were often described as useless, despite the work they performed in the household. ”They are told it is only bride price that gives them value. Since many women believe this, it is no wonder that even today, they don't support the abolition of bride price,” she added.

But this approval isn't only concentrated in the countryside. According to Turner, educated women in urban areas also regard bride price as a cherished custom. The high prices they can command at marriage become sources of status - and because their families are wealthy, there are few concerns about the price having to be refunded.

These factors notwithstanding, some educated women - including Matembe - have pledged not to continue the tradition when their children marry.

Wambui Otieno, a 67-year old women's rights activist, claimed to be one of the first Kenyan women to reject the practice when she was first married. ”I told my father, 'I am your daughter and cannot be bought by anybody',” the former Mau Mau fighter declared to loud applause.

Mifumi and other activists are pushing for laws to reform the bride price and to give women the ability to challenge discriminatory practices in court. ”The law is crucial,” said Evelyn Okoth, a Mifumi staff member. ”Once we have that, we have to spread the word: we have to make every single girl, woman, and child aware of this law.”

Such changes may soon be coming to Uganda. The Domestic Relations Bill, a piece of legislation that seeks to reform several existing laws on marriage and the family, would redefine bride price as an optional marriage gift and prohibit refunds. The bill languished for several years, but was introduced into parliament last December. It may be passed sometime this year.

For many activists, however, new laws are just the starting point. Said Matembe, ”Legislating against bride price will not be a solution to discrimination.”

”The solution to all these cultural practices that undermine the status of women is in the promotion of their status through education and economic empowerment.”

The three-day conference on the bride price ends Wednesday, Feb. 18.

Originally published on the IPS website