In some areas of Uganda, a man asks for a woman’s hand in marriage by paying her family with livestock or money. And up until recently, if the woman chose to leave her husband a man could ask for a reimbursement of what is known as a ‘bride price’.
Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that bride prices cannot be refunded, a decision that rights groups believe will have a meaningful impact in the fight against domestic abuse.
The Kampala-based court ruled in a 6–1 vote that recouping the bride price is unconstitutional and dehumanizing to women, the Guardian reported. Supporters of the Supreme Court’s decision believe that bride price is one of the most prominent contributors to domestic abuse in Uganda.
“Participants perceived bride price as indicating that a woman was ‘bought’ into the man’s household, which reduced her household decision-making roles,” according to the findings of a report written by the Makerere Medical School. “It limited women’s independence and perpetuated unequal gender power relations, especially regarding health-seeking behaviour.”
Bride price is the dowry paid to a family by a suitor so that he may take a woman’s hand in marriage. The practice of paying a dowry for a woman is not limited to Uganda or sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of Uganda however, women are typically not involved in the process. The men from the two families will meet and work out a price. Critics see the practice as degrading to women who are effectively bought and sold as wives. MIFUMI estimates that 68 percent of women there have faced a form of spousal abuse.
And to make matters worse, women from poor families would often endure the abuse to protect their parents. Families struggling with poverty often rely on the dowry to sustain themselves financially. When women threatened to leave their husbands they were reminded of the bride price.
Betty Atyang was 35 when she left her abusive husband for the sanctity of her parent’s house.
“I was surprised when he followed me after two weeks demanding the five cows he had paid 15 years ago. My father kept on tossing him up and down for six months until he was forced to pay back the cows,” she said. Often, the family won’t still have the original dowry and will struggle to pay the husband back.
In addition to the abuse they suffer, women can be castigated for the hardship they place on their family when leaving their husbands. Some have even chosen suicide over the social stigma that comes with leaving the husband. “Afterwards, the atmosphere at home was not good. I was looked at as someone who had brought poverty in the home.”
UNICEF says 40 percent of Ugandan girls marry before 18 but other organizations place the figure even higher. Impoverished families will sometimes marry daughters early so they can live off the livestock or money they are afforded. Other families use the dowry to pay for their own sons’ brides.
While rights groups have praised the decision, there were dissenting views. Some believe that men will be less willing to pay the bride price if they have no insurance plan. Others have said that the family unit in Uganda could be broken down by this development. Justice Esther Kisakye was the lone judge to vote against the measure, saying that the constitution “[only] validates customs that respect the rights of all Ugandans.”
But Local groups like MIFUMI, an organization that focuses on women’s rights, have been fighting to abolish the whole bride price system. While the act of compensating a family for a future wife is still legal, the decision is “a win for both men and women,” according to Evelyn Schiller, MIFUMI’s director of information and communication.
“This is a momentous occasion… and this ruling will aid the fight against women and girls’ rights abuses,” Schiller told the BBC.