Price Tag on Love: Zimbabwe’s Silent Inequity

In a society striving for gender equality, Zimbabwe's bride price laws reveal a hidden layer of systemic discrimination against women.


In Zimbabwe, the bride price, commonly known as “lobola,” is a celebrated cultural rite. However, the complexities of Zimbabwe’s Lobola tradition raise ethical and legal questions that are deeply rooted in society.

The practice of bride price is not merely a cultural ritual; it’s codified in law. In Zimbabwe, customary law, which governs these traditional practices, has a significant influence. It’s not just about the exchange of money or livestock; it’s a legal contract that comes with rights and obligations. And here lies the problem: the law, as it currently stands, allows for the bride price to be reclaimed by the husband if the wife is found to be unfaithful. This provision is not only archaic but also deeply problematic.

Women can be “bought” and “returned” like commodities

Why? Because it creates a one-sided legal framework that disproportionately affects women. In a society that is increasingly advocating for gender equality, this law perpetuates systemic discrimination against women. It undermines their autonomy, reduces them to a form of property, and most importantly, strips them of their dignity. This isn’t just a cultural issue; it’s a glaring legal loophole that perpetuates gender inequality. And as we’ll see, the ramifications of this are far-reaching, affecting not just the women involved, but the very notion of justice and equality in society.

In Zimbabwe, the legal system is a blend of general law and customary law, each with its own set of rules and regulations. General law, influenced by Roman-Dutch law and English law, doesn’t mandate a bride price for a civil marriage. It operates on principles that are often more aligned with international human rights standards. Customary law, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in traditional practices and cultural norms. It not only recognizes but also mandates the payment of a bride price, referred to as “consideration” in legal terms.

The law not only fails to protect women but actively contributes to their subjugation.

The dual legal system complicates the landscape, allowing different judgments for the same act based on the applied law. The Customary Marriages Act explicitly states that a woman’s guardian must give consent for the marriage, and someone must pay a “consideration” to recognize the marriage under customary law. This legal backing lends an air of legitimacy to the bride price, making it not just a cultural practice but a legally binding obligation.

The issue becomes even more complicated when we consider that this law doesn’t offer a similar provision for women. If a husband is unfaithful or abusive, the wife has no legal standing to reclaim the bride price or any other form of compensation. This glaring omission in the law not only perpetuates gender inequality but also contravenes Zimbabwe’s own constitution, which calls for equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of gender.

The law, in its current form, fails to protect the rights and dignity of women, essentially making them second-class citizens in matters of marriage and divorce. This isn’t just a legal oversight; it’s a human rights violation that needs urgent redress.

The Case that Shook the Nation

The Mangwende v Machodo case serves as a stark example of how the law can be weaponized against women. In this case, a woman was found to be unfaithful, and her husband sought to reclaim the bride price. The court, citing customary law, ruled in favor of the husband. This decision didn’t just affect the woman in question; it set a dangerous precedent for future cases.

The ruling sends a clear message: women can be “bought” and “returned” like commodities. It validates the practice of bride price, reinforcing its place in both culture and law. But what’s more troubling is the ripple effect this case has on society at large. It serves as a judicial endorsement of a practice that is fundamentally flawed and discriminatory.

The law provides a mechanism for men to reclaim the bride price if their wives are unfaithful, but offers no such avenue for women

This case isn’t an isolated incident; it’s symptomatic of a larger issue. It reflects the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms that persist in Zimbabwean society. These norms are not just social constructs; they are legitimized by the law. When the judiciary, a pillar of democracy, upholds such discriminatory practices, it erodes the very foundation of justice and equality.

The Mangwende v Machodo case serves as a wake-up call. It highlights the urgent need for legal reform to ensure that the law is in sync with the principles of human rights and gender equality. As it stands, the law not only fails to protect women but actively contributes to their subjugation. This is not just a failure of the legal system; it’s a failure of society to protect its most vulnerable members.

The one-sided nature of Zimbabwe’s bride price laws is more than just a legal issue; it’s a glaring human rights concern. The law provides a mechanism for men to reclaim the bride price if their wives are unfaithful, but offers no such avenue for women. This imbalance is not merely an oversight; it’s a deliberate construct that perpetuates gender inequality.

This legal framework contravenes Zimbabwe’s own constitution, which explicitly advocates for gender equality and the dignity of every individual. It also violates international human rights standards, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Zimbabwe is a signatory. These international agreements call for the abolition of laws that perpetuate discrimination and inequality, making Zimbabwe’s bride price laws not just a national issue, but a global one.

Young girls come to believe their worth links to their “purity” and obedience, while young boys think they own women in some way.

The lack of a corresponding legal remedy for women creates a power imbalance in marriages. It places women in a subordinate position, making them vulnerable to emotional and even physical abuse. The law, in essence, gives men a form of control over their wives, reinforcing patriarchal norms and further entrenching gender roles and stereotypes.

The implications of this imbalance extend beyond the legal realm into the social and psychological well-being of women. This creates a culture that views women as less valuable, less capable, and less deserving of respect and dignity. This is not just an affront to women; it’s an affront to the principles of justice, equality, and human rights that should form the cornerstone of any democratic society.

The Social Ramifications: Beyond the Courtroom

The impact of Zimbabwe’s bride price laws extends beyond legal documents and courtrooms to affect women’s daily lives, social status, financial stability, and emotional health. The possibility of losing the bride price acts as emotional blackmail, trapping women in their own marriages. This fosters a culture of fear and submission, discouraging women from speaking out against wrongs like infidelity or abuse due to potential financial and social consequences.

This practice reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and solidifies the idea that people can buy and return women like property. It sends a harmful message to younger generations, influencing how they perceive gender roles and relationships. Young girls come to believe their worth links to their “purity” and obedience, while young boys think they own women in some way. These stereotypes, once internalized, are difficult to unlearn and contribute to a cycle of discrimination that persists through generations.

The bride price system in Zimbabwe is a relic of a bygone era, a practice that has no place in a modern society advocating for gender equality and human rights.

Moreover, the bride price system has economic implications. Women often find themselves financially dependent on their husbands, making it difficult to leave even toxic relationships. The legal system worsens this economic vulnerability by offering no financial safeguards for women if a divorce leads to the reclaiming of the bride price.

The social ramifications of this practice are far-reaching and deeply ingrained in the collective psyche. It’s not just a legal issue but a societal one that requires a multi-faceted approach to address. Legal reform is crucial, but so is societal change. Both must go hand in hand to dismantle the deeply rooted structures that perpetuate gender inequality.

The bride price system in Zimbabwe is a relic of a bygone era, a practice that has no place in a modern society advocating for gender equality and human rights. The time for change is long overdue. We urgently need legal reforms to align customary practices with constitutional values and international human rights standards. The law should not only be gender-neutral but also actively promote equality and dignity for all.

One practical approach to reform is to consider the duration and quality of the marriage when deciding on the return of the bride price. If a couple has been together for a significant period, contributing mutually to the relationship, it would be unjust for the man to reclaim the bride price in its entirety. This would take into account the emotional, financial, and social investments made by both parties, providing a more equitable solution.

Legal reform, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. Societal attitudes need to change as well. Education and awareness-raising are key to challenging and changing deeply ingrained cultural norms. Community leaders, religious organizations, and educational institutions have a role to play in this transformation. They can serve as catalysts for change, promoting gender-sensitive education and challenging traditional norms that perpetuate inequality.

Additionally, women must actively participate in this reform process. People often sideline their voices in legal and cultural debates, but we need to hear them. After all, they are the ones most affected by these discriminatory laws and practices.

A Step Toward Equality

The bride price system is a complex issue that intersects law, culture, and rights. Though deeply rooted in Zimbabwe, this practice fuels gender inequality and breaches basic human rights. Legal and societal reforms are not just necessary; they are imperative for the progress of a just and equal society.

The path to gender equality has many obstacles, but fixing the bride price system’s flaws is a crucial step forward.

Adapted from an academic article for wider audience, under license CC BY 4.0

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