In Zimbabwe, the practice of bride price (lobola) is steeped in tradition. On an apparent level, the man makes payments to the woman's family as part of the marriage process. But in reality, say critics, lobola condemns women to marital enslavement and denies them control over decision-making, marital resources, their children and their own sexuality.
Among the Shona - the majority ethnic group in Zimbabwe, at 82 per cent - lobola practice involves small introductory payments to open negotiations. These payments go to the father's negotiators. Then, there are the major payments to the bride's father signifying the transfer of a woman's reproductive capacity from her natal family to that of the man she marries. Other than being allowed to pick money from a plate as a sign of accepting the prospective husband, a woman is not directly involved in the process.
At a recent lobola ceremony in a low-income area of Harare, the groom, a clerk in a government department, was charged a massive Z$45 million (1US$=Z$5,600). At the introductory stage, Z$5 million was charged. The man's people had also brought Z$2 million worth of groceries as instructed.
At the main stage, an initial Z$15 million was charged for the bride's father but this was reduced to Z$12 million after considerable haggling. Ten heads of cattle were also charged, including the customary one for the mother for her role in nurturing her daughter. The price of each beast was set at Z$2 million and was non-negotiable. A further Z$6 million was charged for costumes for the bride's parents.
"Lobola was originally a token payment to cement relationships," says Sylvia Chirawu, national coordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA). Chirawu is one of the authors of the 2002 book, 'Lobola' (published by WLSA), which looks at the implications of the practice on the reproductive rights of women in seven southern African countries, including Zimbabwe.
"The man would present his in-laws with a hoe or would work for them for a year as lobola payment. But with modernity, lobola has come to mean large sums of money, cell phones, air tickets and cars, and this further compromises women," says Chirawu. She adds that the practice negates Zimbabwe's commitment to such statutes as the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Over the past century - beginning with the advent of colonialism and the money economy in the 1890s - the symbolism and practice of lobola gradually shifted from being a mere formality to a major commercial transaction. Today, with inflation at 133 per cent and unemployment at 70 per cent in Zimbabwe, lobola is big business. The woman's educational level, the nature of her employment and her virgin status are important considerations.
Zimbabweans marry either under customary law or the general law introduced by the British colonizers. A customary law union allows more than one wife and may involve just the lobola payment or both lobola and a certificate from a magistrate. The civil and church marriages allowed under general law restrict a man to one wife. While lobola is required under customary law but not under general law, WLSA has found that few women dare to wed without lobola for fear of being ostracized by their natal families in times of trouble, and of not being accorded proper wifely status by their in-laws.
According to WLSA, protracted negotiations - as in the case of the clerk's marriage - are reminiscent of bargaining for commodities at a market. "Thus, within marriage, the man sees his wife as a piece of property he has bought. He usually decides on the number of children, and since sons are important, she will keep on having more and more children," says Chirawu.
Chirawu says lobola legitimizes violence against women in marriage but the woman may not be able to escape the abuse because of the lobola paid or because of the fear of losing access to her children who are seen as belonging to the husband.
Besides, lobola-related violence makes women vulnerable to HIV infection from unfaithful partners - they suffer rape and severe beatings when they suggest the use of condoms. Typically, the men say they have paid lobola in full and that "no cow was deducted to compensate for the use of condoms". And if a man dies (of AIDS, for instance), his wife could be inherited by a brother or nephew; refusal could result in her being turned out of the marital home without her children.
Women feel bound by both traditional culture and their religion, says Chirawu. While verses from the Bible - such as "wives submit to your husbands" - are used to complete women's subjugation, little attention is paid to sentences entreating men to love their wives as they did themselves.
Father Joseph Dandiro of the Roman Catholic Church, the biggest Christian denomination in the country, is of the view that "excessive lobola payments" put pressure on the woman to "perform beyond expectations" and lead to needless harassment by her new family. But critics like Chirawu are agreed that the woman is compromised, no matter what bride price is charged.
Edna Masiiwa, Director of Women's Action Group (WAG) says the issues surrounding lobola are all about "communication within families", and that the hurdles could often be overcome through "understanding" between families. There are some families, she says, that charge as little as Z$2 million.
According to Chirawu, traditional practices take a long time to break, especially when women are socialized into believing there is nothing wrong with these. "Empowerment is a difficult process to achieve in older people. It must start in the home with how we raise our children. If we maintain the inequalities between our boys and girls and then start talking to them about empowerment when they are older, it will be too late," she says.
So far, no legal attempts have been made to regulate lobola. "If you put a ceiling on it, you are circumventing it. You are taking a social problem and criminalizing it," says Chirawu. Instead, she urges sensitization on the part of policymakers, traditional leaders and the families that women are a part of.