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to the highest bidder: The role of lobola in modern Zimbabwe
Research and Advocacy Unit
Many a people
have started questioning the practice of bride-price known as lobola
or roora in Zimbabwe. Wide debates on whether the practice should
be abolished or regulated are constantly taking place. Of course,
the wider sentiment is that lobola is a part of Zimbabwean culture
and doing away with it is tantamount to rejecting our cultural heritage.
However, it is also clear that the custom which was meant to establish
ties between two families through the marriage of their children
has been commercialised, women's value has been commodified,
and the practice has become a source of discord within marriages.
and February 2012, the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) had a series
of focus group discussions with women from different parts of the
country and amongst the variety of issues raised in those discussions
was the question of lobola.
were raised, but the overarching idea coming out of the discussions
was that the commercialisation of lobola is the problem with the
practice, not the practice itself. The women asserted that amassing
wealth has become more important than the traditional purpose of
the practice, which was to establish ties between the two families
The groups also
cited that women (mothers) are part of the problem. Women were said
to be pushing their husbands to charge more lobola as part of an
ongoing competition by women on whose daughter had more money paid
for her than the other. Lobola has become about prestige and not
about the joining of two families together. Families are competing
to show each other that their children are more valuable than their
neighbours' or relatives' children.
it was known that a son in law is there to assist the family, as
expressed in the Shona proverb mukwasha muonde haaperi kudyiwa (literally
translated to say, a son-in law is like a fig tree, you never run
out of figs to harvest from it). 'Modern' generations
have lost that appreciation. The women in the discussions pointed
to the fact that today's marriages are short-lived, hence
the benefit that parents have from having a son-in law is brief.
They tend to charge exorbitant amounts at once so that, if anything
goes wrong with the child's marriage in the future, they would
not have lost out on anything.
turned their daughters into businesses. Whereas previously a woman
who gave birth to daughters only and no sons was considered useless,
these days, there seems to be a shift. Girls are now considered
to be a source of wealth. This not only creates the problem of placing
monetary value on human beings, but reinforces the discrimination
against girls and women as these women are not valued for themselves
but for the potential benefits that can be derived from their existence.
of HIV/ AIDS has also become problematic to the whole lobola debate.
The contributions from some of the women in the discussions explained
that because the in-laws know that should their daughter fall ill,
she will be returned to them for home-based care, they therefore
charge enough lobola to take care of such cases. Indeed this is
not only unfortunate, but borders on a depravity linked to societal
degradation, and an erosion of positive cultural and moral values.
As a result, sons-in-law have lost respect for their in-laws. They
also have developed an attitude of disrespect for their wives, stemming
from the expectation that since they paid so much money, then they
ought to get value for their money. Women have no right to negotiate
for sex, including safe sex. She is the husband's cook, cleaner,
launder, and keeper by virtue of the fact that he paid for those
services. At the end of the day the wife suffers. The wife has no
right to demand fidelity from her husband, and, should she be unfaithful,
she is sent back to her family.
In a nutshell,
gathering from the views of the women who participated in the focus
groups, the practice of paying lobola seems to stifle women's
voices and bargaining power within marriage. It renders them subservient
to their husbands and they cannot complain should they be treated
because society expects them to endure in silence.
remains, how then should we mediate the lobola payments?
are some of the suggestions that emanated from the focus group discussions:
- The cultural
aspect of approaching one's aunt tete or ambuya should be
resuscitated so that she enquires how much the prospective son-in-law
can afford to pay. This avenue has become ineffective because
of greed and jealousy.
should ask their prospective sons-in-law how much they can afford
to pay and charge them only for what they can afford.
- People should
not put a price tag on marriage as this makes women some form
of property or commodity.
should value their children's lives and not the money they
can make out of lobola.
The debate goes
on. But it remains relevant that we evaluate the role of lobola
in women's lives. Has it not become more of a harmful cultural
practice than a constructive one? The Committee on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) in
its concluding observations on Zimbabwe's Review at the 51st
session said it has.
What do we as
Zimbabwean women want to do about this issue?
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