A battle to turn marriage in Zimbabwe into a partnership where both husband and wife come together as equals has suffered a significant setback.
This followed President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s decision to ignore the huge public outcry and sign into law a bill that makes the payment of bride price mandatory for those interested in solemnizing customary marriages.
Bride price, also known as lobola or roora in Zimbabwe has been a source of controversy in sections of society who argue that it devalues women and fuels domestic violence. But traditional leaders who form a powerful lobby able to sway politicians say this is an important cultural practice that should not be erased by the law-making process.
As a result of the two groups failing to agree, the marriages amendment bill which also increases the age of consent from 16 to 18 years, had been in limbo since 2020 when it was first passed by the senate.
But Zimbabwe’s Marriages Amendment Bill finally sailed through after all political parties agreed to include bride price as a pre-condition to solemnize a marriage under customary union.
With the amendment, the law now requires marriage officers who also include traditional leaders to ask couples and witnesses if the bride price was paid.
“A marriage officer in a customary law marriage shall put to either of the parties to a proposed marriage or to the witnesses any questions relating to lobola or roora (bride price) if any, and to the existence of impediments to the marriage,” reads an excerpt from the law after it was amended.
However, this has evoked a lot of reactions from various quarters of the society who feel women would still be considered acquired properties rather than partners.
The amendments also provide that a marriage officer in a customary union cannot solemnize unions where couples had stayed together for less than five years.
The clause on the bride price had delayed the bill due to disagreements. The bill was initially passed in the National Assembly in 2020 but was held up in Senate after traditional leaders objected to a clause that said that payment or non-payment of a bride price could not be regarded as a barrier in solemnizing marriage between two consenting adults if they satisfied other requirements of the law.
The government, represented by Justice, Legal, and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi had insisted that the issue of the bride price would violate the couple’s constitutional right to association.
But traditional leaders led by President of Chiefs Council Fortune Charumbira argued that payment of bride price was a hallmark of marriage in customary unions.
The highly regarded leaders were adamant that failure to uphold the provision to pay bride price would undermine cultural values. During one of the heated debates, Chief Siansali from Binga argued that by not making bride price mandatory their powers as chiefs would have been taken away.
“I as Chief Siansali coming from Binga district and Tonga tribe will cease to be a chief if I allow parties to marry without lobola (bride price) being paid. It is my duty as a chief to make sure that lobola (bride price) is paid and if this law being mooted will allow people in my area, which I may say my people, to marry under the customary law, which means the Tonga custom; you cannot talk about it without roora,” he said.
The issue regarding the payment of the bride price has over decades been a subject of contestation in Zimbabwe.
Women rights activists have pointed out that some men abused the payment of bride price saying it is equal to purchasing women and this opened floodgates of abuse and domestic violence.
Some even frowned upon calls for gender equality saying this was unfair since only men were asked to pay the bride price.
“Despite the fact that the Bill has done its best in granting some opportunities to women in Zimbabwe, the inconsistencies, vague provisions, and some legal gaps will see women still stuck in the same position of inequality, abject poverty, discrimination, and violence in marriages,” says Zororai Nkomo a lawyer and journalist.
Marriages Officer, Tinaye Chaza applauded the government for passing the Marriages Bill into law saying it added value to marriage laws.
He also called nongovernmental organizations, Churches, and traditional leaders to educate society that payment of bride price did not give men the right to abuse their wives.
Meanwhile, as the bride price debates rage on there are celebrations on the other sections of the Marriage Amendment Bill which has harmonized marriage laws and addressed harmful practices like forced marriages and child marriage.
The Marriage Bill states that the minimum age of entering into any form of marriage is now 18 years. Child marriages had become quite a vice in Zimbabwe with 1 in every 3 girls marrying before 18 years. The document also includes a ban on same-sex marriage. Homosexuality and lesbianism have always been frowned upon in Zimbabwe which is a highly conservative country.