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RIGHTS-AFRICA: Ugandan Court Asked to Declare Bride Price Unconstitutional

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Sep 8 2009 (IPS) - Deborah Awori could not stop her husband from selling their 14-year-old daughter away in marriage using the time-honoured tradition of asking for a "bride price".

Awori, from Bugayi parish in Busia district, was in the Ugandan Constitutional Court this afternoon testifying in a trial that has asked the court to declare the practice of asking for a "bride price" unconstitutional. In Uganda "bride price" is traditionally the money given as a token of appreciation by grooms to the families of their brides.

Awori told the court that she tried in vain to stop her husband from forcefully marrying of their daughter, Evelyn, so that he could benefit from the "bride price" she received.

Awori was kicked out of the matrimonial home and her daughter married off.

Women rights activists have petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare this old traditional practice of demanding for payment of a "bride price" unconstitutional.

The petitioners told a fully packed court room in Kampala this afternoon that demand for payment of a "bride price" by the parents of the bride from the groom – a tradition practiced by many communities in Uganda – gives rise to conditions of inequality during marriage. These, the petitioners argued, were contrary to the provisions of the constitution.

The petition was led by Atuki Turner, a lawyer and executive director of a women’s and child’s rights agency called MIFUMI and supported by women rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi.

MIFUMI is derived from a village in Tororo eastern Uganda where Turner comes from. Because she was a lawyer women in the village used to approach her for legal advice, which made her start the organisation to rescue girls and women suffering because of bride price.

Both lawyers argued that the "bride price" contravenes the Uganda constitution, which demands that men and women shall be accorded equal rights in marriage and upon its dissolution.

The petitioners asked the panel of five judges led by Deputy Chief Justice Leticia Mukasa Kikonyogo, Alive Mpagi Bahigeine, Amos Twinomujuni, Constantine Kategaya Byamugisha and Steven Kavuma to also rely on testimony from witnesses

Besides Awori, Jagweri James also testified against the constitutionality of "bride price". James’ wife was denied burial for one week as he struggled in his grief to raise her "bride price". In communities where "bride price" is tradition, a man will be forced to pay the price with a fine if the partner dies before he has paid the "bride price" in full. James is another witness who will anxiously await the ruling.

The petitioners argued that the demand and refund of "bride price" as a condition of divorce interferes with the exercise of free consent of the parties in the marriage, and this was contrary to the demands of the country’s constitution.

They further argued that the custom of "bride price" causes domestic violence so that the woman is subjected to cruel and degrading treatment.

"If "bride price" is declared unconstitutional, the implication will be that hundreds of women and girls who marry under customary law will experience a milestone in their bid for equal treatment in marriage and be free from cruel and degrading treatment," Argued Turner.

She told IPS outside the courtroom that many young men were forced to sell their land and property due to the extortionate demands of "bride price" would also benefit if court decides in their favour.

But senior state attorney Partricia Mbezi has asked the constitutional court to dismiss the case. She argued that the same constitution quoted by the petitioners protects customary marriages

The state argued that there is no single African country that has declared "bride price" unconstitutional and asked the Ugandan Constitutional Court not to set the wrong precedent.

"In all marriages, be it Christian, Muslim or even at the registrars’ office, there is a cost incurred and the issue of price can not arise," Mbezi said.

Kenneth Kakuru an independent lawyer, who joined the attorney general’s side to argue for the case of Ankole traditional marriage of which the "bride price" is a part, argued that all petitioners are from one region and particularly from Tororo in eastern Uganda. He said they should not be allowed to make a local issue look national.

He said that in Ankole bride price is like a gift and should be allowed to continue because no body in Ankole has complained about it.

"Petitioners should have gone to the High Court to present their grievances rather than running to the constitutional court," Kakuru argued.

MIFUMI filed a petition to the constitutional court seeking to declare the "bride price" unconstitutional in 2007. They did so after they held a referendum in 2001 and succeeded in getting a majority vote for the reform of the "bride price".

The constitutional court will give their ruling on notice.

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