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UGANDA-RIGHTS: Bride Price: You Feel You Are Family Property

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Sep 28 2009 (IPS) - John Owor is a paid spokesperson for brides and grooms. His job is to represent one of the parties during traditional marriage negotiations, which involves the payment of a bride price.

In Uganda bride price is traditionally the money given as a token of appreciation by grooms to the families of their brides.

It is a controversial practice that saw earlier this month women’s rights activists petitioning the Ugandan Constitutional Court to declare this old traditional practice unconstitutional.

Owor has been in this business for 15 years, and has joined others in the trade to form an association of about 200 men in Kampala alone, who work as negotiators for either the bride or groom.

He admits that negotiating on behalf of the groom is particularly challenging, as you may end up being blamed for giving in to the demands of the bride's family too easily.

During the ritualised negotiations the family of the bride presents the groom's side with a list of how many cows and/or other material or monetary considerations they would find acceptable before allowing their daughter to take the groom’s hand in marriage.

"Some families are inconsiderate, and will ask for many things ranging from Friesian cows to a car or sofa sets etc. And as spokesperson you are supposed to negotiate a fair deal for your side," says Owor.

He says because of transport difficulties and the unavailability of animals in some areas, some families will opt for a cash bride price running into millions of Uganda shillings. (One dollar is approximately 1,900 Uganda shillings.)

According to customary match-making, a man who wishes to marry a woman lets it be known. He then gets a delegation of about ten men to go to the woman's home, where a delegation of men from the her side awaits them.

The speaker of the delegation from the man's side introduces himself, and makes clear the intention of their visit. The two sides then begin negotiating.

The speaker from the woman's side makes known the number of cows, goats and money they consider "worth" their daughter and the speaker from the man's side tells what they are willing to pay.

The process of "please reduce", "no, you must increase" continues, as if both parties are in a commercial or political negotiation.

In the traditional marriage preliminaries the groom is not supposed to speak during the ceremony, and this has made the job of a paid spokesperson crucial to ensure the groom pays less, just as the spokesperson on the bride’s side tries to ensure they get as much as possible.

Keturah Kamugasha, editor of Bride and Groom magazine, says the bride's family gain pride and prestige when their daughter fetches a substantial dowry, but often the bride feels the practice is dehumanising.

"There are always two ceremonies, like among the Banyankole ethnic group in western Uganda. Kuhingira (the give-away), as they call it, used to be enough, but today there is a church marriage that day or later."

Miria Matembe, a women's rights activist and former Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity, told IPS the bride price should be discarded immediately, as it turned women into property.

"It's degrading, and intended to entrench men’s dominance over women. Insecure men think their selfish interests are safeguarded when the bride price is paid," says Matembe.

Rebecca Mudoi was working as a nurse in the Mukono district of Uganda until she got married. Her husband stopped her from working, and sent her to their village in Tororo, eastern Uganda, where she had to till the land and look after their children.

In later years her husband, who was working in Kampala, came home less frequently. At first he did not return to his rural home for three months, then a year, and eventually several years.

"I felt my future had been ruined by the marriage. I was tortured psychologically," Mudoi says.

In the end her husband returned home as an invalid. Mudoi became worried and went for an HIV test in the Tororo government hospital, which turned out positive. Today, she is a member of the Aids Support Organisation branch in Tororo.

Speaking to IPS in Kampala on the issue of bride price, Mudoi traced her fate to the cows her husband paid to marry her and take her away from her family. "I had no way of refusing. I had no power to decide for myself," she says.

"If there had been no bride price, I wouldn't have gone to the village."

Atuki Turner, executive director of the Mifumi Development Association, which petitioned the court to declare the bride price unconstitutional, says across Africa women suffer health hazards because of the practice.

She said that a man who has paid believes he has the right to sex with his wife, even if he has a mistress, and the wife fears this might put her at risk of contracting HIV.

She can neither refuse to have sex with him nor ask him to use a condom. Nor can she refuse if he wishes to take a second wife, even if she is aware that if her husband has intercourse with another woman, while continuing a sexual relationship with her, increases the risk of HIV.

"Bride price renders the notion that a man has purchased a wife, including her sexual consent, labour and obedience," Turner said.

In a traditional setting the delegation from the man's side cannot be given food until both sides have agreed on how much is to be paid.

If the man is not able to pay all that is required, he will not be allowed to marry the woman.

Hope Turyasingura of the Domestic Violence Prevention Center says this has caused financial trouble for many newly married couples because it results in the prospective groom borrowing money until he has enough to pay the full price.

"By the time the two get married the man finds himself in poverty, his life devoted to paying off debt. He becomes frustrated and resorts to beating or mistreating the wife, saying that after all, she is the cause of their misery," says Turyasingura.

When arguing the case before the Ugandan Constitutional Court, Turner had said that demand for payment of a bride price gave rise to conditions of inequality during marriage.

It was an argument dismissed by the state.

"In all marriages, be it Christian, Muslim or even at the registrars’ office, there is a cost incurred and the issue of price cannot arise," the state argued. Judgment is yet to be heard.

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