A recent article tells of a woman in Uganda whose husband beat her regularly until she finally left him and went back to her parents’ house. It is assumed that her husband’s behavior was caused by the custom of ‘bride price or dowry’ supposedly enshrined in Ugandan law. The article refers to a survey done by Mifumi (a Ugandan NGO) which found that 84% of Ugandans believe there is a connection between bride price and domestic violence, and ends by calling for the abolition of this custom. ((Wives not cows: Uganda Dowry fuels domestic violence. Fallon, Amy, Yahoo News. Oct. 24, 2014. Available: http://news.yahoo.com/wives-not-cows-uganda-dowry-fuels-domestic-violence-041333421.html))
“A 2007 Constitutional Court petition launched by the charity (Mifumi) and 12 individuals argued that the dowry portrayed women “as an article in a market for sale” amounting to ‘degrading treatment’…In 2010, the court upheld the payment, ruling while the bride price played a role in some domestic abuse cases and women being treated as “inferiors”, this was no justification for a “blanket prohibition”…But the petitioners then appealed in the Supreme Court, and say if it does not rule in their favour, they will explore other legal avenues. The court is currently considering its judgement.”
I’ve suggested [intlink id=”1113″ type=”post”]here[/intlink] that bride wealth implies status and relative independence for women. The situation in Uganda seems to contradict my view, doesn’t it? I don’t think so. I’ll begin with the article’s confusion of terms. In the second paragraph we read:
“But the dowry she would bring — cows, goats and cash — soured the marriage and brought dark clouds over the partnership, a story repeated by many others in Uganda.”
After reading this, one wonders if the court was amused by the petition. We are told the ‘dowry’ refers to the gifts of goats, cows and cash the bride’s family received from the groom. First, this is not the definition of a dowry; second, dowry is not the same thing as bride price; third, bride price is not the same thing as bride wealth, which is not even mentioned in this article.
Dowry is a payment of cash or goods by the bride’s family. It does not refer to gifts from the groom or his family to the bride’s family. The subject of dowry can get really complicated. Its purpose differs according to the culture and time period. In some accounts it remains the bride’s property although she may use it to set up a household for her new family. At the other extreme a dowry is considered the groom’s property to use as he sees fit. Or it is considered the property of his family. In the most onerous manifestation of dowry, the bride suffers the wrath of the grooms family if the dowry is insufficient.
On the other hand, bride wealth is cash or goods paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family. Again, it’s complicated. Ideally bride wealth is held in trust for the bride even though her family is allowed to use the income it generates. But in current practice it might be counted as her father’s property. Today, it is often used to pay for a brother’s marriage.
On the other hand, bride price is just that—cash or goods paid by the groom’s family for the services of the bride.
This article also demonstrates a confusion of cause and effect. The bride’s father paid nine cows to her mother’s family when he married, and his marriage is still in tact. If this payment is the cause of domestic violence, why didn’t it lead to domestic violence in his case? In fact, the bride’s mother remains in favor of the custom.
Furthermore, domestic violence exists in societies that don’t practice this custom. In the United States for example, the righteous indignation expressed in this article might be a little disorienting. Americans see violence against women, even though American laws support ‘community property’. They even hear violence encouraged by their own legislators who speak cavalierly of rape. Here is an important fact to keep in mind whenever you read about efforts to end payments associated with marriage—especially when they are promoted by NGOs: Usually it is to the advantage of a certain class of people to end them, and this class of people includes colonizers as well as Christians and Muslims. Why? About some of the reasons we can only speculate. There is the matter of the family connections and the wealth the custom helps to protect. In addition, and this reason has been noted by others, because these payments have the effect of delaying marriage they have a tendency to decrease birth rates.
But if this custom is so beneficial, how do you explain the abuse? To be fair, the cultural context can make the causes easy to misinterpret. You would have to start by looking at cultural changes wrought in these societies by turmoil and invasion. While bride wealth used to be premised on pleasing the ancestors, various factors have given it a more individual nature. For example, in one African society a colonizing ruling class levied taxes on the population to cover the costs of the colonial government. This made it necessary for the young men to work in a distant mine in order to earn enough money to marry. The result was a subtle change in the attitude of the men. Some of them began to feel that since they had paid for their wives they were entitled to rule over them.
Meanwhile, back in the community property West, women often exit marriage financially destitute and can consider themselves fortunate if they are not deprived of their own children as well. I’m not suggesting that Americans should implement the practice of bride wealth, even if it were possible, which it isn’t, and not only because of cultural differences. Typically by the time society has been organized into states, the inhabitants don’t have enough wealth for such things. But on the level of principle this custom has much to teach us about human nature, about hidden and seemingly innocuous factors behind the world’s problems, and about how tangled these problems have become during the course of history.
The confusion of terms in this article combined with the blanket assurance that this NGO knows what is right for this culture indicates that we haven’t even begun to talk about this custom rationally.