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The case of the Zimbabwean lawyer who wants lobola (bride price) culture banned

September 12th, 2019
topics:Humans
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:Zimbabwe
tags:lobola, Priccilar Vengesai, women's rights, Zimbabwe

Dr. Priccilar Vengesai, a Zimbabwean lawyer and women rights activist, has started a campaign to bring an end to the culture of payment of lobola (bride price), which she says is the primary cause of gender inequality and a source of most of the problems that women face in marriages. She petitioned to country's highest court, the Constitutional Court, seeking to get lobola removed as a requirement for marriages in the hope that this would free millions of women whom she argues are treated as commodities by this cultural practice.

The lawyer argues that lobola creates a hierarchy in the marriage institution, which forms the basis for unequal power relations between husbands and wives. Vengesai says that lobola perpetuates the subjugation of women to men in its forms and procedures.

Cyril Zenda of fairplanet interviewed Dr Vengesai – who has escaped from one marriage before and found out why she strongly felt that this tradition, which has been practiced in many cultures across the world from time immemorial, should be brought to an end.

fairplanet: In the recent past, you have approached the country’s highest Court, the Constitutional Court, seeking to have lobola abolished on the basis that it contributed to the violation of human (women’s) rights. What became of the case?

Dr. Priccilar Vengesai: When I instigated a court application at the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe to have lobola abolished, the most prominent criticism I got was based on the fact that lobola is not a prerequisite to a marriage. It became the basis upon which the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court requested me to withdraw the matter and do a factual investigation to prove the legal position of lobola in Zimbabwean marriages and allow the involvement of other women in the process. My contention was that it is a customary requirement that women cannot easily avoid and it would not be entirely theirs to choose whether to have it paid for them or not, but rather the family’s decision or the community’s.

How did you reach the conclusion that lobola was the problem in marital relationships, as opposed to the character of the individuals coming together in marriage, or other factors?

From its definition and background, it is apparently clear that women are put in a position of a commodity whereby their payment is negotiated by the father (or any other male figure representing the father) and the husband. Its background is hinged on the patriarchal society which undermines the status of women. Lobola has been evolving to suit the market demands and a woman’s economic value has been consistently revalued to suit the economic situation of the day.

In some cultures, where no lobola is paid when people marry, problems of gender inequality and other violation of rights exist, so how did you come to the conclusion that the problem is lobola?

Lobola is one of the main causes of inequality between a wife and a husband. There could be other causes and that cannot be ruled out for a fact. My main problem with lobola is first of all that it puts a wife and a husband on a hierarchical position such that their positions are not equal from the onset and this is contrary to Section 56 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Marriage is a significant turnaround point in every human being’s life, yet a woman is denied an opportunity to give her views and opinions in a matter which determines her future and her life. Further, because of lobola, marriage starts on an unequal footing with parties being treated differently. From the onset on lobola negotiations the bride is not treated on equal terms with the husband.

Can you give a more detailed explanation on the areas that this lobola culture infringes upon women’s rights?

Lobola discriminates against women in various forms that includes the following:

  1. Lobola discriminates against the bride. One of the traditional reasons for lobola that goes to the heart of equality is that once a bride is married she would be expected to offer services to her husband and in-laws. This recompense entitles the bridegroom to definite rights to the services of the bride. This aspect of appreciation raises the man’s expectation about the benefits that he is to find in the wife, and it might lead to wife abuse when those expectations are not met.
  2. The virginity of a bride plays a role in lobola as it brings an additional cow to the in-laws. This is a sign that lobola is an institution that is highly sexualized because of the payment of an extra cow where the bride is found to be a virgin. In this way girls who lose their virginity before marriage are viewed as damaged goods and no extra cow will be paid to the family. A husband, however, does not go through the process of being considered a virgin or not. It does not matter whether he is a virgin or not at the time he marries.
  3. During the transaction of lobola the bride is relegated to an object upon which her father and her husband-to-be have to determine her price. A husband has the right to participate in the lobola negotiation, yet the bride does not have that right. This commodification of women in the lobola transaction is at the expense of the dignity and equality of women. As a result, lobola reinforces perceptions of women as second-class citizens.
  4. Non-payment of lobola has led to a scenario in which some parents refuse to bury the bride who would have died before full payment of lobola. This serves as surety for lobola payment, which is, in a way, extortion.

The list is endless, but in a nutshell - lobola seems to have been created to enrich men and to suppress women. This constitutes a violation of the equal rights of women on the grounds of sex and gender in violation of section 56 (3) of the Constitution, which provides that every person has the right not to be treated in an unfairly discriminatory manner on such grounds as their nationality, tribe, sex, gender, marital status, economic or social status.

Lobola is very popular among some women, including some that are cosmopolitan, who see lobola as a sign of commitment and a practical expression of love by the prospective husbands. Some women are in fact unhappy about their marriages because their husbands have either not paid any lobola at all or they have only paid part of it, which they see as a sign of not being appreciated. How do you see it being possible that more women can start seeing things the way you do, so that this crusade can gain the currency that it needs in order to succeed?

I agree with you than some women really cry for lobola to be paid for them. This is a gross lack of appreciation of the concept of equality and the traditions that fight it. I believe the value of a women is within themselves, when they appreciate their worth without any penny being paid for them. That concept of finding your worth through some transaction between your husband and your father is misconstrued and it has to be corrected. It basically shows that there is a real work to do out there. The fact that other women need lobola paid for them does not mean it is right, but it shows how deeply this culture is sunk into our women. They need emancipation and I believe it’s possible to emancipate them.

Are there any additional points you wish to make?

The lobola custom is rationally related to a patriarchal society which promoted male dominance and female subordination. This patriarchal society cannot be reproduced in its original form in the modern Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is now building itself as a democratic society, which embraces gender equality and constitutionalism. Even if lobola is to revert to its original non-materialistic value of paying it with a hoe or labour, the fact remains that it is a woman who is paid for and the unwarranted hierarchy would still exist. It is not necessarily the value attached to lobola payment that threatens gender equality, but it is its substantive nature.

As a way forward, lobola must be abolished. In simpler terms, the abolition of lobola means the curtailing of payments for a wife. The abolition of lobola is one of the most effective ways to achieve equality between men and women in the Zimbabwean and many other societies.

One thing is certain: as long as the lobola system exists (as it is), women will never be free and equal members of society because men will not regard them as such. This inequality is seen as curtailing the decision-making capacity of women for whom lobola has been paid with regard to how resources within the marriage should be used. Abolition of lobola needs to be perceived as a way of creating a new culture in which men and women are equal. This will create a balanced society where men and women find themselves on equal footing in a marriage set up.

A balanced and equal society is the one that is anticipated by Section 56 of the 2013 Zimbabwean Constitution.

I thank you for this opportunity to explain myself on this issue that I feel strongly about.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
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© Cyril Zenda
Dr. Priccilar Vengesai, a Zimbabwean lawyer and women rights activist
Dr. Priccilar Vengesai, a Zimbabwean lawyer and women rights activist
The lawyer argues that lobola creates a hierarchy in the marriage institution which forms the basis for unequal power relations between husbands and wives.
When I instigated a court application at the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe to have lobola abolished, the most prominent criticism I got was based on the fact that lobola is not a prerequisite to a marriage.
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