BRIDE PRICE AND HEALTH: Domestic violence and health within the culture of bride price

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Domestic violence and health within the culture of bride price

Author: Dan K. Kaye

Paper presented at the International Conference on Bride Price and Development

Makerere University Institute of Computer Sciences

February 16th – 18th 2004

Bride price as a gender issue

Gender is the social construction of men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities, and the relative value as well as status attached to the socially determined roles and responsibilities. Gender is important for Sexual and Reproductive Health for several reasons:

  1. Gender influences decision-making and access to or control of economic resources and opportunities, between males and females (gender equality). It also influences justice/fairness in distribution of resources according to the value attached to these roles (gender equity).

  2. Gender is related to how we are perceived and expected to think and act as women and men because of the way society is organized, not because of the biological differences.

Bride price as a gender issue affects the broader context of women’s lives. This is because gender refers to how people are perceived (or perceive themselves), or perceive any activity, (such as payment of bride price) as determined by the society in which they are. This influences what roles are considered appropriate for them. In different societies, the importance of bride price as a gender issue is dependent on:

1 what form it takes (materials or money)

2 when is it paid (at what stage of the marital relationship or the woman’s life cycle)

3 how the payment is made (in one sum, once or in instalments)

Dynamics of bride price payment

What are motivations for bride wealth?

1 Social security (Those who can provide gifts or bride wealth are perceived to be marriageable, more serious about marriage)

2 Social status among peers. For women, having been paid for may enhance their social status, especially where they are in favour of the relationship

3 Economic security (Rich men and those who can afford to pay a high bride price are perceived to be more likely to support the woman if she became pregnant or sick). Many women with older partners who provide material benefits have young or main boyfriends with whom they maintain a more serious relationship with intention of later marriage

4 Social and economic institutions

  • The amount of money or material gifts exchanged, and the value attached to the gifts by the community are a symbol of what the girl is worth.

  • This gift exchange increases the prestige of both the man, the woman and the two respective families

Bride price and health

Background conventions

1 United Nations General Assembly’s Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

  • Emphasized equality of the sexes

  • Article 1 deplores any forms of distinction, exclusion or restriction on basis of sex, which has the effect of or purpose of impairing or nullifying recognition, enjoyment or exercise of rights, by women, irrespective of their marital status

  • Article 3 calls on member and signatory countries to take up all appropriate measures including legislation, to ensure advancement for women in terms of rights and opportunities

2 The International Conference on Population and Development 1994.

In 1994, government delegations from 179 countries and many representatives of civil society met at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt.

Participants at this meting reached a consensus that emphasized meeting people’s holistic health and development needs. 3. This Programme of Action called for:

  • Empowerment of women both as a matter of social justice and as the key to improving the quality of life for all people.
  • Meeting the reproductive health needs of the people through choice and opportunity rather than coercion and control,
  • Mobilization of resources to meet previously neglected health and social needs.

Reproductive health

Reproductive Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters related to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes (ICPD Programme of Action 1994).

  • It implies that people should have satisfying and safe sex lives, and have the capacity to have children and to decide if, when, and how often to do so.

Key Issues about Bride price and health

It contradicts the four ethical principles on which Sexual and Reproductive Health should be based. These are:

1 Bodily integrity

Right of security and control over one’s life, including sexual freedom.

In many cases where bride wealth is paid, the women do not take part in the negotiations, and often do not know how much is exchanged. In a way, bride wealth deprives women of sexual freedom and ends up as a way of exploitation of the woman’s sexuality through commercialisation or commoditization of this sexuality

2 Personhood

The right to self-determination: treating women as principal actors on issues that relate to, affect or influence women’s health. They should be subjects on important decisions to make, not mere objects

3 Equality

There should be equal access to opportunities, resources and power/control over resources between men and women. Where bride price is paid, the impression is that the woman is bought into the men’s household, and so the man and his household have absolute powers and control over the woman. In this respect, the woman has little decision-making power in the household.

The 3 dimensions of gender inequality relate to differences between males and females with respect to:

1 Power (control over resources, decision-making for key functions at household)

2 Prestige (the woman’s status or esteem that is attached to her social position and multiple roles as a wife, mother, society member)

3 Access to resources, opportunities (especially financial)

Though it may in some situations enhance prestige for some women, bride price tends to worsen the existing gender inequalities and inequities, with serious implications for reproductive health. Gender inequality is of great importance in reproductive health decision making especially:

  • In making decisions to seek care during medical emergencies

  • In freedom of movement

  • In freedom to use reproductive health services, such as family planning, antenatal care, child immunization

Where it reduces on the power and prestige of the woman, the belief that the woman was paid for, belongs to the man and has less decision-making power in the home, such inequality may lead to domestic violence that is sanctioned by the given society and culture

4 Diversity

Women are not homogeneous, and have different attributes that arise from their different races, ages, tribes, and social classes. There should be respect of the differences between women at all stages of the life cycle. Bride price tends to remove this heterogeneity between women.

Effects of bride price on health

1 It perpetuates the gender inequalities and inequities

  • Bride price may lead to unequal gender power relations in the household and consequent domestic violence. Violence occurs when women try to challenge or overcome the existing gender inequality in regard to power, access to resources, decision-making and prestige, within a given society or cultural context.

  • Those without economic power are at a disadvantage in negotiating sexual relations. Limited ability of the “commodity receiver” to negotiate safe sexual practices and behaviour, such as use of contraceptives and barrier methods

  • In order to get bride wealth for men in a given family where there is a girl, the girl may be forced to marry at an early age. His brothers then get the bride wealth to pay for their own wives from other families. This limits opportunities and access to resources to girls and women in their parents’ households.

2 It leads to commercialisation of sexuality.

  • Women who are young, educated or from some families may attract a higher bride price than those who are not educated or are older. The bride wealth that is paid may be used by the brothers of the woman for marriage. Likewise, men more well off financially may be more likely to marry off more and even young women.

  • Adolescents form a large proportion of men’s non-marital sexual partners. Commoditization of sexuality may lead to high rates of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV infection with higher rates in one sex compared to the other, or high rates that can not be explained by mere biological factors, at different stages of the life cycle. This may be due to disparity for sex-caused and age-caused differences in the relative proportions of those who are HIV-infected. There is disparity in HIV infection rates between males and females among adolescents and youths, as men, who can afford to marry more women by affording bride wealth, go for younger women, or tend to have multiple partners. Such young women have higher rates of HIV infection than youths or other women of the same age

  • Many girls who are not married become stigmatised. They may have sexual relations with rich (often older) partners with the hope of improving their marriage opportunities. In case they conceive before marriage, this reduces their potential for marriage. Therefore, such conception may lead to unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, many of which end up as induced abortions with other adverse reproductive health consequences

3 The desire to get bride wealth may lead to early or forced marriages, including betrothing young girls. This affects the girl’s education opportunities. This may also lead to:

  • Early marriage and adolescent pregnancy with its complications such as adverse/poor obstetric outcomes

  • High fertility rate as many women may desire to produce girls in order, once they are married off, they bring wealth into the family to enable their sons to get enough bride wealth to also marry

  • High school drop out rates in order that girls are married off to get bride price. Girls miss out on formal education. This leaves such girls with little knowledge about health and sexuality issues, life and livelihood skills, poor negotiation skills for safe sex behaviour

  • Unhealthy attitudes and poor health-seeking behaviour as a result of low self-esteem, lack of knowledge or being financially dependent

4 Payment of bride price may perpetuate dangerous practices and cultures or rites such as:

  • Wife inheritance, which, may lead to polygamy and spread of HIV/AIDS

  • Cattle rustling. In some societies leads to high rates of injuries and subsequent deaths among men (among the perpetrators) due to violence as they look for cows to use in payment for bride price. There may be sexual violence, rape and other reproductive health consequences among the victims.

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