When Janet Akiding wed in 2004, when she was a teenager, her husband’s family paid a “bride price.” That’s the custom in Bukedea, the district of Uganda where she lives. Her parents received four goats, four cows and 200,000 shillings ($56).
Akiding’s marriage eventually turned violent.
“Whenever he’d beat me, he’d say, ‘You people have taken my cows,’ ” recalled Akiding.
Eventually, she left her husband. Because of his threats, her father refunded two cows.
Akiding’s story is part of a cycle of domestic violence entangled with the custom of the bride price. A man whose family pays a bride price may feel as if he owns his wife. And if the marriage turns sour, he may demand that the bride price be refunded. In the past two years, the Mifumi Project, a women’s rights organization in Uganda, has reported at least 10 cases of abuse linked to “bride price” in Bukedea alone.
The issue of the bride-price refund also comes into play if a woman dies. In July, beauty queen Norah Atim, 23 — she was Miss Tourism Northern Uganda — died in a car crash. Atim’s father was reportedly told he had to refund the bride price before he could claim the body of his daughter for burial.
But this month, Uganda’s Supreme Court has stepped in, banning the refund of the bride price if a marriage ends in divorce.
Evelyn Schiller, a spokeswoman for Mifumi, says the “landmark ruling” means that women are now “free to walk out of an abusive relationship.”
Mifumi has been fighting since 2007 to have the tradition of the bride price itself deemed unconstitutional, noting that it “leads men to treat women as mere possessions from whom maximum obedience is extracted.” The petition also noted that the practice of paying a bride price fuels child marriage, with some girls taken out of schools so their fathers can collect the bride price.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the challenge is to make sure information about the ban is disseminated across Uganda, particularly in rural communities.
“We will use radio and print media to widely educate the public about the ruling,” said Schiller.
But the Mifumi Project now says their work is “done” — that the court’s decision means the bride price will be considered a gift or a token of appreciation, not a mandatory payment.
For women like Akiding, the court’s ruling isn’t enough. She’d like to see the bride price itself banned. She has four daughters and hopes they never marry. But in case they do, she wants to make sure they get a good education so “if they end up in violent marriages, they can move on.”