Of Dowries and Abuse

‘Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?’ Stated millions of times per year across much of the world, yet this seemingly innocuous and traditional question sets the scene for many of the gender issues that undermine contemporary society.

Douglas Rabasha

A woman belongs to nobody except herself and the right to literally give her away to another being is fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, other cultures require assets and money to be handed over in exchange for the hand of a bride, as if there is a market value for the female human. Having been either given away or purchased, many consider that the bride becomes the property of the husband. Of course we all know that these thoughts are both old-fashioned draconian and have no consequence in law. Yet is it possible that in societies that still maintain dowries and lobola there is a link to higher levels of female violence and abuse? Botswana declares itself to be on the world centre stage of fighting on gender issues, but is it really?

The Global Gender Gap Index for 2022 was released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) Wednesday, where it ranks Afghanistan at 146 out of 146 countries – the lowest nation in the list. Afghani practise is to pay a bride price which in Kandahar and Helmand can amount to 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 afghanis (14,590 to 43,468 US dollars). A huge amount given that the per capita GDP is only $520. Bride price also drives child marriage in Afghanistan, as research in 2013 by the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation showed. Getting a high bride price was a major reason given by parents for marrying their girls off young. The appalling gender inequalities of girls and women in Afghanistan are well documented. So given the bride price represents a massive investment for the groom, could there be a link between the bride price and the diminished rights of women?

In Hindu tradition in India, the brides family actually pays the grooms family to take the woman, the reason being to provide stability and security for the bride. Researchers looked at 40,000 marriages that took place in rural India between 1960 and 2008 and found that dowry was paid in 95% of the marriages even though it’s been illegal in India since 1961. The practice, often described as a social evil, continues to thrive and leaves women vulnerable to domestic violence and even death. Dowries consume a substantial proportion of household savings and income: in 2007, the average net dowry in rural India was equivalent to 14% of annual household income. Disturbingly, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), recorded around 7000 cases of dowry-related deaths in 2020 alone. That amounts to about 19 women every day, Although the act of giving or taking dowry has been banned since 1961, the practice of dowry persists, as has violence against women arising out of dissatisfaction over dowry.

Readers should now be aware of the direction that they are being taken, that it is possible to link bridal payments and dowries to gender disparities and worse. So with a deep breath lets plunge into the turbulent pool of local culture and the issue of lobola. An anecdote first, in 2003 the author was working in Kenya and visited by his eighteen-year-old niece of Asian African descent. While holidaying in the Masai Mara she was spotted by a local Masai dignitary who, without any hesitation offered forty head of cattle for her hand. Wishing not to offend the impressive warrior-like figure or cause a diplomatic incident, the matter was deferred to the following day, mindful of our 5 am outgoing flight from the private airstrip. It was the seriousness of the proposal that shocked, then the realisation that females could be bartered for, in this land of lions and cattle.

According to one explanation, the lobola demonstrates that the man getting married is capable of taking care of a family and also serves as a token of gratitude to the bride’s family for raising a wonderful woman. The lobola ceremony is a formal process of negotiation between two families in order to come to a mutual agreement on the price. Bride prices vary greatly in Zimbabwe, but the requested amount in his case is six head of cattle or cash equal to about $3,000 in 2017. In Kenya. The bride price depends on how educated the girl is, and you might have to pay between Ksh. 10,000 and Ksh. 100,000 or $800 to $8,000. The more substantial amount is for university educated ladies.

A South African Lobola Calculator App revealed that a guy would need to be prepared to pay over R64,000 or eleven cattle for a virgin, degreed, professional lady with a house and car. One guesses that such women are rather scarce, so a lower amount would normally suffice. The App impressively claims to have been designed after 157 hours of consultations, 45 meetings and meeting with over 100 elders.

While back home in Botswana the Voice Newspaper wrote that Lobola is meant to compensate the parents of the bride that pain of separating with their beloved child since birth, demonstrates a very paternalistic view of the world. While the Ministry of Public Health states that It involves a formal process of complex negotiations between bride and grooms families to arrive at a bride price. That pretty much seals legitimising paying the bride price. It is not coincidental that both South Africa and Botswana exhibit very high rates of female abuse including rape, as has been previously reported in the Gazette.

Cultural systems are found to be amongst the chains that bind married women to abusive relationships, according to social researcher Malesela Edward Montle. South Africa, in the present day, is overwhelmed by a vexing toll of domestic violence and femicide. It is worth clicking on this link to read more about conceptualising lobola as a perpetrator of gender-based violence in http://journalarticle.ukm.my/16995/1/42975-138186-1-SM.pdf
Earlier last year a Namibian parliamentarian Elma Dienda announced that rape does not exist in marriage, as a husband cannot rape his wife – this, despite of Namibia being an example of a country where the rape law explicitly criminalises marital rape. Marital rape still not a crime in Botswana, in spite of Botswana being a signatory and having ratified a number of international instruments aimed at eliminating any form of gender-based violence. Rape is mentioned seventeen times in the review of the constitution mostly calling for capital punishment, that it failed to mention Lobola, shows that at least, as far as Batswana are concerned, paying the bridal price is not linked at all with serious gender issues. Zimbabwe is considering joining others to make paying a bridal price illegal. For Botswana, the dots also need to be joined, research carrying out, and informed conclusions made. The first step is to criminalise marital rape. Importantly, let one of the acknowledged drivers of gender violence be legislated against. Paying for brides is an anachronism that needs confining to history, let it become so in 2023.