The bride price has been a part of Africa for as far back as we can verify (and beyond). Over the years, with the influence of capitalism and the dire situations our continent faces, the practice has evolved in many ways. While we cannot deny the fact the bride price plays an integral role in our traditions and culture, it is paramount for us to stop for a moment to ask ourselves whether this practice hasn’t diverted from its true purpose and if it respects human rights. Is the bride price in Africa good or bad?
The bride price, also known as bridewealth or bride token, is an amount of money or property which is paid by a groom and his family to the parents and family of the women he wants to marry. In many parts of Africa, the bride price confirms the validity of a traditional marriage and conditions the permission to marry in church or in a civil ceremony.
Many cultures consider a marriage to be invalid if the bride price has not been paid. In sub-Saharan Africa, negotiations between the two families is considered to be a crucial practice which gives the opportunity for the families of the groom and the bride to meet and bond.
Although the bride price was initially a symbolic token, it has been described in many African countries as a license to own a family or to purchase a wife from a family often leading the man to receiving the “permission” to exercise economic control over of his wife.
Furthermore, the bride price has been criticized for being an “enrichment scheme” for a bride’s family. There are two serious questions that have arisen with the evolution of the bride price: has it truly become a source of income for families and does it have a negative impact on women?
In my opinion and through experience, it does seem that many African families use the bride price as a source of enrichment. Not only do families put unspeakable pressure on their daughters to get married, but once a man presents himself to marry these daughters the families ask ridiculous amounts of money and property.
It leads one to question the practice as a whole. Women for whom the bride price hasn’t been paid are heavily frowned upon by their families and these women in turn put extreme pressure on men to pay what their families ask for. For many African families the bride price is no longer a token of respect and honour, but is rather a way to make a quick buck.
Some families even go as far as to skip the whole negotiation process, which used to be an opportunity for the two families to meet and bond, and immediately send what they literally call an “invoice” to the groom’s family. Not only do these so-called invoices contain large amounts of money, but the items that are asked for can sometimes be unbelievable.
The worse scenario is if a groom lives outside of the continent or in a city or country deemed as “well-off.” No matter the groom’s financial status, these families feel as though the bride price is an opportunity to solve their financial problems.
On one hand I can understand this unfortunate fact because of the obvious poverty and misery of the continent, but on the other hand it is so sad to watch young men struggle to get married because they cannot meet their in-laws’ expectations and to see young women being humiliated when their husbands are unable to fulfil every demand.
Not only does this create unnecessary tension between a bride and groom, but it also robs couples of the beauty and excitement they should experience during the whole process. In turns this leads to many African men feeling as though they “own their wives” and therefore feel they have the right to do as they wish.
I recently watched an African movie in which a husband often said to his wife that “I paid all that money to your family not for you to sit on your behind but for you to cook and take care of me…” This is one of a million examples of how a diverted practice of the bride price is demeaning to women.
In many African ethnic groups divorce has a social stigma and if a woman wants to leave her husband, she is expected to pay back all the money and goods that the husband and his family initially paid her family.
In some African countries if a woman is unable to pay this “debt,” she can be tried and imprisoned. These patriarchal practises unfortunately reinforce women’s lack of freedom and millions of Africa women find themselves stuck in unhappy and even abusive marriages.
Despite the efforts of activists of many African activists to eliminate the practise of the bride price all together, the issue remains real as serious. In 2001, Uganda held a referendum on whether a bride price should be a non-refundable gift.
In 2004, a conference was held in Uganda where activists from various African countries came together to discuss the effect the payment of the bride price has on women. It is difficult to change the situation especially because the majority of Africa, especially rural areas, still approves the relevance of the practise.
For me, the “original bride price” may have not been such a bad thing; however, the manner in which things have evolved has made me wonder whether the bride price is something we as Africans should continue practising at all. Is a practice that pushes women back to a subordinate position worth keeping in a world in which so many people are fight for women’s rights?
Does the practice of the bride price hinder the work of women’s rights and empowerment activists? Does the bride price create more bad than good by leaving newlywed couples with unfortunate financial problems which strip them of the joys of being newly married? Has the bride price truly become a source of enrichment for families and demeaning to women?
By Stella Mpisi
The author is a Congolese-born (DRC) South African author, blogger, song-writer and colourism activist.