Published:  01:00 AM, 18 December 2018

Dowry: Understanding cultural barriers to women empowerment

Dowry: Understanding cultural barriers to women empowerment

Donah Mbabazi

Dowry has always been an essential part of the Rwandan culture.  In the past, during marriage ceremonies, the groom's family would offer a token of appreciation to the bride's family for raising her. This token of appreciation was mainly in form of cows, and it was what they called dowry. Over the years, however, this tradition has evolved, and some parents now demand for money instead of cows.

This has led to debate over the relevance of dowry, with some pointing out that the tradition is a hindrance towards women empowerment. Recent research carried out by Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture and the Ministry of Sports and Culture showed that some men harass their wives because they paid substantial dowry. So, is dowry payment an obstacle towards women empowerment?

Annette Mukiga, a gender activist, says for a woman to accept dowry settlement implicitly means she is accepting men's leadership. She says that that nowadays elders and men are involved in setting dowry that is to be paid after making negotiations based on a woman's achievements, for example, if she has a degree or if she is working and earning something, and the practice is setting up a woman as a commodity to be negotiated over and sold. And this narrative shouldn't be encouraged because women are human beings.

"There are arguments that dowry was a gift from one family to another and that today, this value has been tainted and it has become a business with the whole marriage celebration becoming a victim of this capitalistic money-minded trend," she says.

As a feminist, Mukiga says she appreciates the idea of wanting to recognise and appreciate parents for the work well done, but if dowry should continue as a Rwandan value, then both families should be appreciated. Otherwise dowry is a practice that reinforces discrimination and abuse of women's rights that should be stopped.

Onesphore Ruhumuriza, a historian, explains that in Rwandan culture, dowry is a symbol between the family of the groom and the bride. It is on this basis that he argues that dowry is in no way a hindrance to women empowerment but a way of strengthening family ties.

He is, therefore, against those who want to trade this respectful gesture for monetary gains because dowry payment is meant to be a sign of respect for women. "In Rwandan culture, one paid dowry according to what they could afford, there were no rules.

It should always be done this way, in fact, women should stay away from those who want to turn dowry payment into some sort of exchange," Ruhumuriza says. Human rights lawyer Gatete Ruhumuriza Nyiringabo sides with Ruhumuriza saying that dowry payment doesn't hinder women emancipation since it is a gift and not a payment.

He argues that it is the intense upheaval of feminism that is causing this misunderstanding. "I think feminism is bringing some misunderstanding, some are going by the western culture forgetting that we are Africans and we have our own ways of living.

In our culture, dowry has always been and will always be an important symbol of love," Nyiringabo says. "What people need to understand is that dowry has never been a form of payment, rather, a symbol of unity. It is a gift that showed a union of two families. Unlike the western culture, in Africa marriage is not about the man and the woman, it is about two families coming together."

Solange Ayanone, the project coordinator at PAX PRESS and a gender activist, says the meaning of dowry has changed nowadays and lost its relevance. "To me, it's more like human trafficking because first of all the couple has no role to play in this negotiation, and when the two families fail to agree on this issue, even the wedding can be stopped," Ayanone says. She points out that there are chances of women being harassed by their husbands, accusing them of not bringing anything of value.

"It's hard for the husband to consider what the lady has brought because plates and glasses are not sustainable, like a house. And because he was pushed to pay high dowry, he considers the woman as an item he purchased." Ayanone also mentions a gap in the family law for not being specific on the amount of dowry payment because this pushes some parents to ask for excessive dowry.

According to her, dowry can be cancelled and removed from the law, adding that if it has to be about two families exchanging gifts and not money. "And in the law there is a need to put value of dowry in terms of money and set limits to the lowest and the highest dowry to avoid any speculations around this."

Feminist Sylvie Nsanga argues that in real sense, dowry is a value attributed to something, and that something is a woman, this is why some women feel like they belong to their men - making them feels powerless to argue or decide to leave an abusive marriage.

"The discussions before the real marriage ceremony where uncles meet to discuss agree and disagree and bargain is really horrifying, it makes women a commodity they bargain for and fix a price. This is the very reason why men feel superior," she says. Nsanga wonders why some people call dowry payment cultural yet it is only one family giving that gift. "Do people know the meaning of a gift? A gift is not conditioned," she says.

She also feels for the men who want to start families yet can't afford to pay dowry. "When I was a youth leader in the National Youth Council, I had the privilege to tour the country for many years, meeting youth and listening to their great and sad stories, dowry was among the sad ones. In Bugesera, women told me they don't get married easily because they have to bring a bike and mattress as assets to their new home.

In Cyangugu, some men were crying over this issue saying that they couldn't marry because they couldn't afford dowry," she narrates. "In reference to the above, dowry brings more problems than we bargained for. More complicated equations have been solved and I believe we can solve this problem as well," she adds.

Nsanga shares her story and says that when she was getting married, she refused dowry because as a feminist she wouldn't have forgiven herself if she accepted it.  "It would have hurt me if I had entertained this cultural belief, a culture which puts the woman as a special asset is not to be accepted."

She says she is against dowry payment because men who can't afford it are considered 'less of men' and women are taken like assets and a subject of debate and bargaining.  "We will not reach gender equality and full women empowerment and autonomy if we don't address underlying issues beyond women's representation hiding in our patriarchy system," she notes.

The writer is a journalist of The New Times

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