Marriage has always been an important institution among Zimbabweans. Traditionally, for a marriage to be ratified and consummated, bridewealth had to be paid.
The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology defines bridewealth as “a marriage payment from the groom or his kin to the kin of the bride, usually to legitimate children of the marriage as members of the groom’s lineage”.
Radcliffe-Brown defines the same phenomenon as “an indemnity or compensation given by the bridegroom to the bride’s kin for the loss of their daughter”.
There were many benefits of bridewealth to both men and women. Some of these benefits were the rights both the man and the woman involved acquired.
However, it should be noted that payment of bridewealth gave more rights to men than to women.
The first rights the man acquired have been described as rights of intention.
The man acquired these as soon as the marriage negotiations started. These rights showed that the woman was now an intended spouse.
According to Radcliffe-Brown, in certain circumstances the man could sue for damages inflicted upon his intended wife. The belief was that the marriage negotiations would be concluded successfully.
It should be noted that these rights were acquired by the man only, not the woman.
The second group of rights was acquired after the payment of bridewealth. Anthropologists such as Anthony Gittins, have called these rights in uxorem, meaning exclusive sexual rights over the woman.
The husband got full control of the woman’s reproductive system.
The woman did not gain these rights and consequently the man could have as many wives as he wanted.
Any slight infringement on these rights on the part of the woman would be punished severely. She had to be faithful.
The third group of rights the man got was called rights in genetricem. These were acquired after the partial or full payment of beasts.
These rights gave the husband exclusive rights over the ownership of children.
Even if the woman had an extra-marital affair, the child born out of that illicit affair belonged to the formal husband.
The children inherited their father’s totem and surname. The woman did not acquire such a right.
In the event of a divorce, she had to leave all her children with the husband. The woman’s duty was to bear children, especially male children and failure to do so was catastrophic.
The fourth category of rights the man got, concerned the disciplining of the wife by moderate beating.
Although the payment of bridewealth and the community protected the woman from ill-treatment by her husband, it was well understood that the man had the right to discipline his wife by moderate beating.
The problem was that the moderateness of the beating was very subjective.
The woman did not acquire such rights and because of that she was not supposed to beat her husband even if her stamina allowed it.
The fifth category of rights gained by men was the right over the productive capacity of their wives.
The wife had to work in the fields and most of the produce from therein belonged to the husband. She did not own the fields in which she and her brood toiled for.
The husband had the right to forbid his wife from acquiring gainful employment. If the wife was allowed to work formally, the salary she earned belonged to the husband. She could not use it without his express permission.
The woman gained the right to be loved, protected and supported; probably the only rights the woman gained in this transaction.
One must note that sometimes these rights were not explicitly pronounced but implicitly understood.
Whether implicitly or explicitly pronounced, most men and women knew what they were bargaining for in any given marriage transaction.
At times it was the duty of the aunts and uncles to explain these rights to their nieces and nephews.
As can be seen in the above explanation, men acquired more rights than women and they still do.
Now with the commercialisation of bridewealth, men are more aware of these rights than ever before. They may not communicate them openly but they uphold them unwaveringly.
As long as these rights are in place there cannot be any significant equality between men and women.
Women may be bosses at their workplaces but when they come back home, there will be the man who paid bridewealth and they know quite well that he alone calls the shots.
Bridewealth has ceased to save the purpose for which it was established.
Some women have been brainwashed into thinking that it gives them more value but that is not true.
Women have value in themselves by virtue of having been created in the image of God. No amount of money, beasts or precious stones can add value to a woman.
Women have also been told that bridewealth must stay because it is part of our culture. Yes, it is, but it has been distorted and commercialised. As long as it remains in place in the manner it is, the cry for woman emancipation will remain utopian.
Women cannot have both bridewealth paid for them and total emancipation. They have to choose between these two. Perhaps the question to ask is: if the practice of bridewealth were to be abandoned today, who stands to lose or benefit?
Dr John Chitakure is coordinator of programmes at Wadzanai Training Centre. He can be contacted on 0712766263/0772498713 or e-mail: email@example.com.
He writes in his personal capacity.