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To abolish or not to abolish bride price?

By Vision Reporter

Added 11th September 2009 03:00 AM

THE passing of James Jagweri’s wife on Women’s Day 2006 will remain a bitter memory to him not only because he lost his children’s mother, but also because it brought him the most stressful and dehumanising week of his life.

THE passing of James Jagweri’s wife on Women’s Day 2006 will remain a bitter memory to him not only because he lost his children’s mother, but also because it brought him the most stressful and dehumanising week of his life.

By Lydia Namubiru

THE passing of James Jagweri’s wife on Women’s Day 2006 will remain a bitter memory to him not only because he lost his children’s mother, but also because it brought him the most stressful and dehumanising week of his life.

Lillian Akello had been his for 15 years but he had never paid bribe price to her family in Tororo. When she died, her relatives descended on Jagweri, demanding that he pays the price of taking their daughter or else he could not proceed with burial arrangements.

With the body lying in waiting, the two families started haggling for the appropriate price, eventually agreeing on three cows. Jagweri did not have the cows but he had to find them as his wife’s body was starting to rot before his eyes. With help, he secured the bride price a week after Akello’s death and was finally allowed to bury her.


Bizarre stories like Jagweri’s are being unearthed at the Constitutional Court, where 12 individuals and Mifumi, an NGO, have petitioned for the abolition of bride price in Uganda. The group is represented by Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, a city lawyer. The petition is, however, being opposed both by the state and private parties represented by Kenneth Kakuru, another city lawyer.

There is a miscellany of reasons put forward by both the proponents and opponents of bride price.
Opponents to the practice argue that demand for bride price by the woman’s family affects the right to marriage of the man and woman.
They add that it leads to women being treated as mere possessions that can change hands at a consideration and exposes them to domestic violence.

At the same time, the condition that bride price must be refunded at the dissolution of the marriage traps women in marriages they may otherwise want to leave.
Often, they argue, parents do not allow their daughters to get out of abusive marriages because they fear being forced to pay back the bride price. On the flip side, those who support the payment of bride price argue that it cements marriages, thereby checking divorce rates and certifies the union between husband and wife. They add that payment of bride price is a treasured tradition that is now only being demonised on the basis of a historical colonial misunderstanding of Ugandan customs.

Which one of the sides is more credible is a matter for the courts to decide. However, one wonders how the outcome will affect the ordinary Ugandan.


For a couple like Solomon Oboth and Fulimera Nyayuk, the result will determine whether or not they will finally be relieved of a daily threat to their personal safety and marital bliss.

Nyayuk, 37, was married before and now her first husband will not stop haunting her current marriage, demanding to be refunded the bride price he paid for her. He has the support of Nyayuk’s brother. Nyayuk’s first husband gave one cow and two goats to take the then 15-year-old from her parent’s home.
However, she did not immediately conceive and this brought her repeated beatings from her husband. She eventually fled the marital home and lived at her ancestral home for six years before her remarriage to Oboth, her husband of nine years now.

“While I lived with my parents, my first husband did not demand for a the refund of bride price but when he learnt I had remarried, he started demanding fora refund from me and my second husband since my parents had died,” Nyayuk narrates in a sworn affidavit to the Constitutional Court.

So bent is the first husband on getting his refund that he has on two occasions had both Oboth and Nyayuk arrested and held for several days by the Police in Nabiyonga sub-country, Tororo district, where they live.

Mifumi intervened and had them released but has not done away with their troubles. “My first husband is still demanding for refund of the bride price that he paid for me and has threatened to arrest us again.”

While Oboth and Fulimera are praying for a ruling that will outlaw bride price, the state and its attorneys are hoping for the opposite.
According to the Attorney General’s response to the petition, abolition of bride price would be taking away a right that is already constitutionally guaranteed by article 37 of the 1995 Uganda constitution, which is the right for everyone to practice, promote and maintain any culture or tradition in community with others.

Bride price is an age old part of marriage rites in many Ugandan cultures. “What this petition is trying to do is to take a right that is already constitutionally guaranteed away for those Ugandans who enjoy it,” says Patricia Mutesi, the attorney who is representing the state.

In any case, she argues, the country already has sufficient laws to cater for those who do not wish to give or take bride price. Therefore, those who choose customary marriage and pay bride price do so willingly. Mutesi argues that one can choose any one of the four types of marriage recognised by the constitution: Christian, Mohammedan, civil or customary. “In as far as the parties intending to marry are adults who choose the option of a customary marriage fully knowing that it imposes these customary requirements and do not undertake any other type of marriage which does not … they do in fact consent to the requirement for bride price and its refund,” the response to the petition reads.

However, Alice Emasu, a journalist, says outside the courtroom, matters of choice in paying bride price are not always black and white, as the state attorney says.
In 2001, she went to her parents to tell them she intended to marry in a Church ceremony.

Her parents demanded for bride price of 10 cows and 10 goats plus a marriage fee of sh3m before giving consent. Not even their daughter’s pleas could dissuade them from changing their minds on the demand for the hefty bride price. At the same time, the church she wished to marry in would not wed them until they produced a consent letter from her parents.
The couple ,who were just starting up, was forced to painfully save, borrow and take on several jobs to raise the bride price. “Meanwhile, we had to cohabit for five years,” she says in her affidavit.

In practice again, it is not only the parties to the marriage that are affected by the bride price demands. Deborah Awor of Busia was beaten and thrown out of her marital home for protesting her husband’s intention to marry off their P.7 daughter in exchange for sh95,000, three cows and three goats. A few districts away in Pallisa, Daniel Achibu is facing a civil suit before the district’s chief magistrate for failing to refund bride price paid for his sister who left her husband.

He is heir to their father, to whom the bride price was paid. In another case, Atimong, a woman who had fled her marriage, was arrested with her father and brother and held until the family paid back the bride price they had received 11 years earlier.

The negative stories around bride price not withstanding, some feel that a move to outlaw it would be tantamount to throwing the baby with the bath water. “The abuse of a custom by individual persons does not prejudice its noble aims or thereby render [it] unconstitutional and people who appreciate the noble aim of these customs should not be denied their constitutional right to practice customary marriage,” reads the state’s response to the petition.

What, in fact, are the noble aims of bride price? Its payment serves as a marriage certificate in a customary marriage and its refund at the dissolution of the marriage acts as a divorce decree, according to Kakuru, the other respondent to the petition. It was also used to check polygamy. He argues: “If you are paying 10 cows as bride price, you are going to think twice before getting a second and third wife.” That aside, supporters of bride price feel that since there is no common definition of what is or isn’t bride price across the different cultures in Uganda, outlawing it would threaten other aspects of culture.

Kakuru explains that in Ankole, for example, the cows initially demanded for by the bride’s family may be viewed as bride price yet they are not, because the bride’s family in return gives the groom bigger gifts at the giveaway ceremony.
In Buganda, the culture of bride price has so evolved that the woman’s family no longer demands or haggles for it, but instead leaves it up to the groom to choose a fitting token of appreciation.

Kakuru fears that if bride price is outlawed, all these similar but fair customs will be banished as well. Rwakafuzi, however, says the petition is not against bridal gifts, but the demand for them. He says the gifts should be given “freely and willingly” and should not be paid back when the marriage breaks up.

To abolish or not to abolish bride price?

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