You either give me 21 cows or you don't take my daughter away," an old man told a group gathered outside his homestead in Sironko, eastern Uganda. After a lot of haggling, the two parties agreed that the groom pays in installments. A shy, 15-year-old girl was brought out of a hut and handed over to a 60-year-old man who already had three wives, 17 children, and six grandchildren.
This case was first heard in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in 2004 at the first-ever international conference on bride price (also known as dowry). Six years later, the struggle to abolish dowries is still on.
Almost all of Uganda's 56 ethnic groups have a dowry system. In Karamoja, northeastern Uganda, a dowry could be as high as 100 cows. In return, a Karamojong wife works very hard in the fields and produces several children.
The age-old custom is regarded as an appreciation of the bride's parents for bringing her up. In recent years, however, the payment of dowry has become commercialised and exploitative. Some fathers are tempted to force their young daughters into marriage just for the sake of acquiring wealth via the dowry system. Others demand exorbitant payment, sometimes leading to cancellation of the marriage. And there are some parents who do not ask for a dowry at all.
In 2007, Mifumi, a Ugandan women's rights organisation, went to court seeking to have the dowry system abolished. It petitioned the Constitutional Court, arguing that bride price degrades women, causes domestic violence, and subjects women to servitude in marriage. The haggling and pricing of young girls and women like commodities, according to Mifumi, is an affront to human dignity. The organisation therefore asked the Constitutional Court to pronounce on the legality of the dowry system in relation to the equality of women.
In March 2010, the court rejected Mifumi's petition, saying a dowry agreement may be entered into with joy by two parties seeking the felicities of marriage. Four of the five judges of the Constitutional Court ruled that the payment of a dowry did not contravene the Constitution of Uganda. Three of the five judges were women.
The government of Uganda was represented by the attorney general, who argued that a dowry did not mean that a bride was for sale but the practice was merely symbolic of the groom's appreciation for the upbringing of the bride.
Ms Patricia Mutesi, the principal state attorney who represented the attorney general,...