Paying the price for marriage

Paying the price for marriage

By Newton Arori

The payment of bride price is a prerequisite for customary marriages across many Kenyan communities. Traditionally it was justified on grounds that it was compensation to the bride’s family for lost labour. This made sense in the traditional African setting where the bride would leave her family to join the groom’s extended family and henceforth assist in chores. 

In the modern setting, most couples live away from both their families in a jointly owned home and share household responsibilities.  There is therefore no reason for the groom or his family to ‘pay’ the bride’s family or vice versa. If, however, as is commonly argued, bride price serves to appreciate the bride’s family for raising their daughter into a suitable partner, then the groom’s family should be likewise appreciated. 

Bride price is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful. Under Article 45(2) of the Constitution, ‘every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex, based on the free consent of the parties.’ The demand for bride price by the bride’s parents as a condition precedent to a valid customary marriage makes the consent of the persons intending to marry contingent upon the demands of a third party. This may undermine article 45 (2). The result is that couples often cohabit or elope due to not being able to raise funds sufficient to meet the obligation. 

Bride price negotiations often entail discussing the bride’s worth in monetary terms based on her age, education and such. This can have the unintended effect of portraying the potential bride as an article for sale. The consequences are far reaching. First, no sum of money equates to a human being’s worth, therefore the negotiations violate Article 25 of the Constitution which provides for the freedom against degrading treatment. 

Second, by virtue of having ‘paid for the bride’, the groom is naturally bound to have expectations, some of them unrealistic. Consider for example, a study by the Centre for Human Rights Advancement in Uganda. The study found that bride price carries with it perceived obligations on the bride’s part because she has been ‘paid for’. To a large extent, the stigma associated with barrenness is attributable to such expectations. Women need to continually ‘earn’ their bride price throughout the marriage.

Yet, article 45(3) of the Constitution is explicit that parties to a marriage are entitled to equal rights during the marriage. Bride price clearly can undermine this equality.

Bride price is also detrimental to the quality of marriage; some cultures require the bride’s family to refund part of the bride price in case there is a divorce. Thus, women may be trapped in dysfunctional marriages owing to their parents’ inability or unwillingness to pay back the bride price. Indeed, a 2017 paper by the United Nations World Institute for Development Economic Research titled ‘Bride Price and the Well Being of Women’ found that the combination of a very high bride price (over Sh100,000) and a requirement to pay back the bride price upon divorce is associated with lower levels happiness for wives. It is perhaps because of this that the Uganda government has banned the requirement of bride price refund upon divorce. Kenya would do well to follow suit.

As expected, bride price has its advocates. Some studies have even found a positive correlation between better quality marriages and larger bride price payments. In one such study, the authors note: ‘larger bride price payments are actually associated with better quality marriages as measured by beliefs about the acceptability of domestic violence, the frequency of engaging in positive activities as a couple and self-reported happiness of the wife.’

Such findings, while useful, do not necessarily prove a causal effect between bride price payment and better marriages. A possible explanation for the correlation would be that grooms who pay higher bride price are better off financially, and it is that financial well-being, not the payment of bride price, that is responsible for the reported marital satisfaction. It may well be that such couples would be even happier without the bride price payment.

All this is not to say that bride price is without benefits. In particular, it has been shown that since bride price value increases significantly with the bride’s level of education, a bride price culture provides an incentive for parents to invest more in girls’ education. For this reason then, should the government consider abolishing or modifying bride price payment, this should be done alongside additional policies to promote female education.

What is clear is demerits of a bride price culture overweigh its merits.(

— Writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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