Uganda: Bride Price - Can abolition end violence against women?

Many Ugandans, especially from western, northern and eastern Uganda, take pride in bride price. However, the people of Tororo district, through Mifumi Project, recently filed a petition in the Constitutional Court seeking to abolish it.
The Mifumi Project, is a Tororo-based non-governmental organisation working to protect women and children against violence. Alice Emasu talked to Atuki Turner, a lawyer and the executive director of Mifumi about the petition.
Question: What is this petition all about?

Answer: The petition seeks to abolish bride price. We want it declared unconstitutional. The practice of payment and refund of bride price violates several fundamental human rights enshrined in the 1995 Constitution of Uganda. Article 2 of the Constitution talks about the supremacy of the Constitution and should, therefore, not be contradicted by any cultural practices.

The practice also discriminates against women; it treats them like property. The whole thing becomes commercialised thus promoting elopement, cohabitation, domestic violence, unfaithfulness and divorce. The extortionist nature of bride price also inhibits men from marrying, condemns them to poverty and causes misery. This is the first petition of its kind in the history of women's struggle for emancipation in Uganda.

What do you hope to achieve?

We find that women and girls in abusive relationships do not have recourse to justice. For example, today, a woman cannot go to court and easily get a divorce if her parents are not willing to refund the bride price. Many women are still bound by the Customary Law, which provides that a marriage is only valid after payment of bride price and it can only be dissolved after refund of what was paid to the parents of the woman. We have also seen cases of inhuman practices where, if a woman dies before the bride price has been paid, her parents object to the burial until the in-laws have paid the bride price. In some instances the man's family is unable to pay. We are, therefore, trying to support and protect women's rights.

The petition is also aimed at providing leadership and guidance on matters of bride price. In 2004 when women activists raised the concern in Parliament, instead of passing a law to protect communities against the practice, the legislators evaded the responsibility and referred the matter to respective communities to handle it.

We expect the petition to put to end all these barbaric practices. We want to achieve commitment of our legislators to enact clear laws to protect communities, especially women and girls, against the practice.

What is the progress of the petition?

The petition is now at the Constitutional Court pending verdict. People have sworn their affidavit. These are grassroots people who have been affected by bride price in many ways. The petitioners who include men and women suffered effects of bride price, ranging from imprisonment for failure to pay or to refund bride price, divorce, separation and domestic violence. There are 13 of them waiting to be given dates for the hearing of their petition in court.

What category of people will benefit from the petition?

Mainly the poor people from rural areas where the practice is most prevalent. The practice is common among the Japhadhola, Banyankole, Iteso and Luo-speaking people. Women and girls are the most affected because of their low status in society. The Petition will also benefit some men who are unable to pay or refund bride price. Women from privileged background can afford to refund the bride price on behalf of their parents. Some even support their poor husbands to raise the required bride wealth.

What challenges do you foresee in the petition?

Lack of commitment and support from our leaders who do not take their roles and responsibilities seriously. I think our leaders are either not bold enough to tackle the traditionally cherished practice of bride price or are just not bothered about some pertinent issues that affect women and girls.

Getting the petition approved may not be a problem. But we are likely to face challenges in getting the Parliament to pass a law against bride price. The legislators may welcome the petition, but they may delay it just like they did with the Domestic Relations Bill.

What happens if the petition is not granted?

The sky is the limit. We shall explore other available legal frameworks such as going to the East African Courts, African Human Rights Courts and the Protocol on Women, which is the first African Bill of Rights, among others. However, we are likely to be limited by lack of funds, which is why we are likely to continue lobbying our leaders for positive action.

Who is this lady behind Mifumi, Atuki?

I am a lawyer, a woman activist, born in Mifumi Village in Tororo. My parents, the late Okoth and Mrs Okoth, introduced me to community work during my S.4 vacation. I am an old girl of Namagunga Girls' School. I studied Law at Makerere University before proceeding for a master's degree in Women Studies at the Manchester Metropolitan University. I then enrolled for another master's degree in creative writing at the Sheffield Hallam University, all in the United Kingdom.

What inspired you to start Mifumi Project?

The difference in educational standards between rural and urban schools which I saw in Mifumi village inspired me to do community work. Children in Mifumi were studying under trees with no blackboards, no scholastic materials and no uniform. The only facilities they had were donations from UNICEF. Making a decision to work for my community in Tororo was not easy, especially after I completed higher education. I was offered a government job at the Ministry of Gender, but I painfully turned down the offer and opted to serve the community and the women's cause in particular.

Another difficult decision I had to make was when I met my husband, an Englishman. Marrying him meant that I had to relocate to the United Kingdom, but because of my love for the community, I had to return to my roots and establish the Mifumi Project.

Interview by: Alice Emasu

13 August 2007