Rethinking the African bride price tradition?
Would you place a price on your daughters and sisters?
Marriage as an institution is timeless and culture regarding how marriage rites ought to be performed are dynamic. Traditional African societies lacked courts or specialized institutions responsible for marriage. As such, bride price served the instrumental role of ratifying marriages. Several African cultures have the validity of marriage deeply dependent on the payment of bride price. However, today this age-long tradition is being questioned. The opposing contentions are simple to grasp yet pose tough questions with difficult answers. Should we preserve the African culture which is fast eroding and lose our identity? Or should we in the name of tradition ‘sell’ women into marriage?
Marriage and bride price in African culture, from North to South, East to West is perhaps the most significant rite of passage and perhaps, provides the largest Pan-African element. In South Africa, bride price is known as ‘Iobola’ where the groom’s family presents either money or cows or both to the bride’s family as a gesture of his willingness to marry her. Shona communities in Zimbabwe know bride price as ‘roora’ and while the tradition is to give cattle, it can be replaced with cash. In clear terms, Bride Price is a gift or payment, it may take the form of money, natural produce or some other form of property; the payment is made to the family of the bride-to-be on account of the marriage of the female person and it is paid in respect of a marriage which is intended or has taken place. The idea of bride price is rooted in what lawyers may regard as ‘consideration’.
In the law of contracts, consideration is a benefit which must be bargained for between parties, and is the essential reason for a party entering into a contract. Marriage is the contract, being a family affair in Africa, it represents the union of two families. So, the ‘bride price’ serves as the consideration for the bride. In several communities, divorce is not binding until the bride price has been refunded to the groom.
For many families, the bride price has metamorphosed not only from its symbolic token into a get-rich-quick scheme or as an antidote to poverty particularly if the groom lives or works in a city or country perceived as well-off. It is also a strategy for testing the financial stamina of the groom; the bride’s family conjures a long list of items, at times ridiculous that must be purchased.While in traditional societies, tubers of yams and cattle were sufficient ,today, young men are nearly choked with expenses before the marriage. Perhaps as the world keeps evolving, latest gadgets, well-furnished homes and maybe, air crafts would be a requirement for marrying their daughters.
Is demanding a price before consent can be given to marriage not a violation of human rights? Women’s Right activists and hard line feminists argue that the bride price tradition frustrates their work because it subjects the woman to the whims and caprices of her husband. In defending the abuse their spouse, many men claim they have the authority because they paid the bride price.It is the misunderstanding of the symbolism of bride price that causes men to often physically abuse their wives as it now seems like a license to own or a mere exchange of control over the woman and her life.
Cultural conservatives believe there is a foundation upon which the existing social order is built.‘Bride Price is an integral part of our culture and must be preserved’ many argue; it defines the very essence of being African. In ancient tradition, the items requested were symbolic. For instance, in Yoruba Culture, the groom is expected to bring a bag of sugar signifying the sweetness of the marriage and kola nuts as a sign of respect amidst other items.Besides, hard line traditionalists argue, when a woman leaves for her husband’s house, she is showered with gifts which include household items to begin her new life with. At least in traditional societies, utilities like pots, plates, spoons are gifts by the bride’s parents. So, the bride price money in reality is only saving the man future expenses.
Clearly, bride price was not instigated merely to extort, it is a sort of commitment and evidence of readiness for the relationship in the long haul. It is very unlikely that a man who is unprepared for marriage will pay any bride price. In essence, bride price is only a responsibility test for the groom, his family and their financial preparedness to raise a family. Perhaps the biggest misconception remains that bride price does not in any way signify or equate the worth of a woman, rather it is a humble demonstration of appreciation, honor and respect for a bride’s family. Some communities interpret it as payment for the training the bride well.
Managing modernization has been the greatest challenge facing Africa’s culture. Should the African Union compel African states to declare bride price as illegal? In 2004, a conference was held in Uganda where activists from different parts of the continent to discuss the effect of bride price on women. In Kenya, the constitution outlaws the obligation to pay a bride price but it is widely understood that it will be paid. In 2015, Uganda banned refunds of bride price after divorce. In the case where abuse forms the basis for divorce, imagine having to pay to divorce your abuser? Passing a legislation against bride price may be tough as nearly 68% of Africans still live in rural areas. The question should rather be; will you request or accept bride price for your daughter or sister?