Ugandan women can now feel less like a commodity up for sale at the marketplace and at more liberty to exercise their right to divorce. Following a Ugandan Supreme Court ruling that banned the practice of husbands demanding a refund of the bride price paid to the in-laws should their customary marriage end.
In Uganda, it has been the norm that when a married couple divorce, the wife, and her family are expected to refund back the bride price paid to the man. The bride price is usually paid in the form of livestock.
The Supreme Court ruling was based on the argument that the typical wife is more likely to have less wealth than her husband. So in the event she feels the marriage is nothing but a bed full of thorns, and she wants a divorce. That option would not be available to the wife, given neither she or her family can raise the necessary dowry price to refund her husband and become a free woman.
Feminism activists argue that the ruling was an important milestone achievement towards removing traditions that are detrimental to the women. However, the Supreme Court judges went further to acknowledge that the tradition of paying a dowry to the bride’s family is still popularly practiced by many Ugandans. But it should not be treated as a commercial transaction, where refunds are expected to be paid should ‘the contract’ not pan out as expected.
The matter was brought before the court by Mifumu, a women’s rights organization. Although the group did not get all they had hoped for, they were very pleased with the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling.
In a statement to BBC, the group’s spokesperson, Evelyn Schiller said, “This is a momentous occasion…and this ruling will aid the fight against women and girl’s rights abuses.”
The practice of paying bride price is not unique to Uganda alone; indeed many other African countries practice the same:
Kenya: The pastoral communities in Kenya accept bride price in the form of cattle. This practice has mostly been said to be the leading cause of cattle rustling. Where young men invade neighboring communities’ villages, steal their cows, and sometimes violent confrontations erupts and human lives are lost. The spillover effects include revenge attacks, ethnically-instigated violence, tensions, and divisions.
South Africa: The bride price is referred to as “lobola”, and it’s a demonstration of the groom’s commitment to taking care of the wife. However, it is considered a symbolic act, not a wife purchase transaction.
Niger: They have set an official maximum price for a bride price at 50,000 CFA francs ($83). In most marriage unions, the groom usually pays more than this price.
According to Mifumi, the paying of bride price seems to make wife battering or how it is commonly perceived ‘wife disciplining’ an accepted norm. This violence against women often is defended by rhetoric like the man bought his wife. Thus, he has unlimited authority over his wife’s “sexual and reproductive capacity.”
Although six of the seven judges found no direct evidence to suggest, there was a link between the act of paying bride price with domestic violence. They said they plaintiff did not offer sufficient evidence to prove the correlation between bride price and wife battering.