Zambia: Is Dowry System Fair to Women?

By Thandiwe Moyo

PAYMENT of dowry (referred to as Lobola) by a man who wants to marry a woman in most African societies, is one of the things that constitutes marriage under customary law.

However, emphasis by the courts of law to validate marriage based on payment of dowry has become a source of concern to some women.

This is because many marriages in Zambia come about as a result of unplanned pregnancies.

In such cases, men and women start to live together without any formal arrangement or payment, a situation which is referred to as cohabiting.

This is regardless of how long a couple may live together.

As long as a relationship between a man and a woman does not involve payment of dowry, courts do not regard such as marriage.

According to Women for Change (WfC), couples that opt out of relationships where dowry is not paid, often fail to share property.

When a couple divorces, all the property in the house remains with the man because no dowry was paid.

Not paying a woman compensation after divorce and dismissal of cases deemed to be cohabiting by the courts, even after a couple had been living together for many years, is what makes the law regarding dowry payment unfair towards women.

In the Zambian context, the payment of dowry provides strong evidence that a man is committed to be in wedlock with a woman.

Payment of dowry shows that the importance of a woman has been appreciated by a man.

It is a demonstration by the man to the family of the woman that he is committed to marrying her and providing for her.

A man who cannot pay dowry is deemed to be lazy and incapable of providing for his own household.

But to put things in context, dowry is not limited to Zambian tribes or cultural groupings.

Dowry is a worldwide phenomenon which is found in many cultural groupings.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says dowry has a long history in Europe, South Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world.

The encyclopaedia says dowry is most common in cultures that are strongly patrilineal, were women are expected to reside with or near their husband’s family (patrilocality).

For example, in India, dowry is a form of money, goods, or estate that a woman takes to her husband or his family in marriage.

One of its basic functions is to serve as a form of protection for the woman or wife against the very real possibility of ill treatment by her husband and his family.

The dowry used in this way is actually a conditional gift that is supposed to be restored to the wife or her family if the husband divorces, abuses, or commits other grave offenses against her.

Land and precious metals have often been used in this form of dowry and are frequently inalienable by the husband, though he might otherwise use and profit from them during the marriage.

In addition to that, dowry sometimes serves to help a new husband to discharge the responsibilities that go with marriage.

In some societies, dowry provides the wife with a means of support in case of her husband’s death. In this latter case, the dowry may be seen as a substitute for her inheritance of all or part of her husband’s estate.

In many Indian societies, dowries have served as a reciprocal gesture by the bride’s kin to the groom’s kin for the expenses incurred by the latter in payment of bride wealth.

These exchanges are not purely economic but instead serve to ratify the marriage and consolidate

friendship between the two families.

The encyclopedia further gives an example of medieval and Renaissance Europe where dowry frequently served not only to enhance the desirability of a woman for marriage but also to build the power and wealth of great families and even to determine the frontiers and policies of states.

‘In South Asia, for instance, parents of the groom have sometimes demanded compensation for their son’s higher education and future earnings, which the bride would ostensibly share,’ says the encyclopedia.

In the Zambian scenario, different tribes and cultural groupings look at dowry in terms of animals, a sum of money or other gifts paid prior to a wedding.

The Tonga people of Southern Province normally ask for cattle from men who want to marry their women or daughters.

Among the Bemba people in Northern and Munchinga provinces, dowry is paid by men for their brides.

The payment is in form of money and other gifts like goats, and farming implements among them.

It is paid to appreciate the hard work that the parents of the pride put in raising and grooming the bride who is supposed to look after her husband once the two are married.

With the coming of modernity, most Zambian tribes and families are quantifying all dowry related requirements in monetary terms.

But generally speaking, whatever form it takes, dowry is used in most cultural settings in Zambia as a barometer to gauge the economic capacity of a suitor.

It is the bottom line that cements all discussions that eventually lead to marriage and even when it comes to divorce, the issue of dowry is raised by the parties involved before a marriage can be annulled.

Therefore, it is indisputable that dowry payment is regarded not only as a symbol of love and a way to appreciate the parents of a bride, but also as something that forms a basis on which marriage can thrive.

Given the predicament that women who cohabit with men have experienced, traditional marriage councilors suggest that it is for a good cause that dowry payment is made.

They say requirements for dowry must be followed as it is also a way of bringing the two families of the man and the women together and creating an existence as well as a bond.

But some women who have fallen prey to being made pregnant by some men in the course of dating believe validating marriage through payment of dowry is unfair.

Such women wonder how many men actually finish paying dowry before they marry their wives especially with focus in over-populated areas like townships where most men are unemployed and have no regular income.

Gender Minister Nkandu Luo is cognisant of the fact that the law supports the payment of dowry which she believes puts women at a disadvantage.

This is because some men have a tendency of making women pregnant, as many as they prefer, since they know that having not paid any dowry, they could not be burdened with the responsibility of providing for such women whom they only flirt with.

Professor Luo said it was sad that most women suffered after divorce since the Marriage Act was based on dowry payment.

She disclosed that her ministry was looking at the possibility of enacting laws that would benefit a woman and her children even if the marriage was seen to be not legal.

“There is no responsibility of men under this law where marriage is legalised through dowry payment. It has disadvantaged women and children.

“For that reason, the ministry is working towards bringing up laws that will force men to maintain both the woman and the children whether legally married or not,” she said.

She said in as much as dowry payment is vital in a marriage, it is unhelpful for the courts of law to stop men from paying maintenance fees to a woman just because the man never paid any dowry.

National Director for Women and Law in Southern Africa Maureen Tresha said calling a marriage illegal on account of dowry not being paid is devastating to women who are not certain about their marital state.

She said most people in the community do not know that a marriage is only legalised through dowry payment.

She said most people think that when a couple stayed together for more than six months, that automatically meant they were married.

She said communities need sensitisation on such laws.

Ms Tresha said in most cases, some men see no relevance in paying dowry because most marriages arose from women getting pregnant.

She said the law of legalising a marriage through dowry payment does not benefit women.

Mercy Mwila, a divorcee who lived with her husband for ten years in Matero Township in Lusaka, said she was shocked that the local court dismissed her case where she sued her husband for maintenance.

She was told that her husband did not pay dowry to her family and therefore, she was merely cohabiting with him.

She said it was sad that all the property the couple attained together was given to her husband since she was not considered to be his legal wife.

Ms Mwila said she had struggled in her marriage and that most of the property they had was acquired through her hard work.

She said it was unfair that the court dismissed the case of divorce and ordered the couple to go separate ways without sharing property and no maintenance fees were awarded in her favour.

Caroline Kazembe, a mother of five, also expressed sadness that the courts dismissed her divorce case after she had lived with a man for seventeen years and the couple had five children.

Ms Kazembe was unaware that her marriage was not legal since her husband did not pay dowry.

She thought her marriage could have been legalised by virtue of having lived with the man for more than ten years.

“I have lived with my husband for more than ten years. Why should the court dismiss our case on grounds that it is not a marriage simply because he did not pay dowry?” she asked.

Perhaps it was time society realised that many women are often too excited and rush into marriage without their parents’ permission.

Such marriages often arise as a result of poverty or abuse of alcohol.

Many women, especially in rural areas, move into a man’s house and start living as a man’s wife.

It is therefore expedient that communities are fully sensitised on what constitutes marriage so that problems of women being victimised are avoided.

Source: The Times of Zambia

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