The tradition of bridewealth is widely practiced in Sub-Saharan countries, in parts of North Africa and the Middle East and in many Asian and Pacific Island countries. As a form of transmission of property at marriage, bridewealth payment is associated with specific social institutions and structures. The anthropological literature has revealed that giving bridewealth became initially widespread amongst pastoralist and horticulturist societies where labor force was of critical importance. The practice is also prevalent in societies characterized by virilocal residence, i.e. where women move with their husband's family after marriage. Finally, the tradition of giving bridewealth is common in societies characterized by agnatic descent, i.e. where the children born to a couple are automatically affiliated to their father's lineage and clan. The aim of a bridewealth transaction is thus to balance the transfer of rights to the bride's labor and future children from her natal lineage to her husband's lineage and clan.
Bridewealth payments are generally made of perishable and non-perishable goods. Non-perishable good of common occurrence in most African marriages are livestock, shell (cowries) and metal objects (especially hoes). But as noted by the anthropologist Jack Goody (1973: 11) "[…] bridewealth transactions are above all typified by the very substantial cattle payments made by the patrilineal people of the savannah country in Eastern and Southern Africa, as well as in the sub-Saharan region of West Africa." In North Africa and the Middle East, depending on the region and context (especially urban vs rural areas), bridewealth gifts may include camels, goats, jewelry and cash. In Asian countries, bridewealth is practiced in "modernized" households with payments frequently taking the form of cash, household goods, jewelry and luxury items. Among the Amerindian Navajos tribe in the United States, sheep historically constituted the main bridewealth item.
The amount of valuables and goods given as bridewealth may range from a token to perpetuate the tradition to many thousands of US dollars in value in some countries. Bridewealth payments are fixed amounts in several countries. In others, the amount of valuables and goods to be given by the family of the groom-to-be to the family of the bride-to-be is the subject of long and intense negotiations. The value of the bridewealth given varies according to different criteria such as the social status of the bride and of the bridegroom, the level of education of the bride, her employability, her beauty, her virginity, etc. Internet and cell phone applications have recently emerged in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa to help young men to evaluate the "value" of their prospective wife.
In most African countries, it is the responsibility of immediate kin to pay for bridewealth. The situation is quite different in other parts of the world, such as Melanesia, where not only the lineage and the clan of an individual contribute to the payment of the bridewealth for his marriage but also fellow villagers and people from other villages who are tied by exchange relationships with the groom-to-be or his kin.
Since bridewealth payment is designed to compensate for the transfer of rights over the woman's labor and capacity of reproduction from her natal group to her husband's group, the dissolution of unions where such payment is made is difficult. Divorce from marriages where bridewealth is given generally necessitates the reimbursement in full or in part of what was given at marriage. In August 2015, however, the Uganda court made history by outlawing the refund of bridewealth in case of divorce, this after the non-governmental organization MIFUMI addressed a request to the court to declare the payment of bridewealth unconstitutional.
Many decry the inflation in bridewealth payments. In Xincai county, an impoverished area from Central China's Henan Province, the typical bridewealth has risen sharply in recent years, from 66,000 yuan (approximately 9 900 USD) around five years ago to more than 100,000 yuan (approximately 15 000 USD) now, greatly outpacing growth in local incomes (Global Times, February 12 2016). In the city of Shanghai, it is common for bridewealth payments to be in excess 1 000 000 yuan (around 150 000 USD) (Mahapatra and Song, June 6 2013)
Several countries have attempted to control the excesses in bridewealth payments by establishing a fixed or maximum amount to be given. In the Southeastern Paktika province of Afghanistan, for example, the Paktika Reform Council has fixed in 2015 the maximum bridewealth (walwar) to be given at 250,000 afghanis (around 3 800 USD) for unmarried youth and at 350,000 afghanis (around 5 300 USD) for a man tying the knot for a second time. The bridewealth rate previously ranged between 600 000 (approximately 9 000 USD) and more than 1 800 000 afghanis (27 000 USD) (Pajhwok News, July 25 2015).
National and international organizations working in the area of human rights have increasingly denounced the ramifications of the practice of bridewealth: bridewealth violence, i.e. conflicts and tensions emerging around the amount and payment of bridewealth, and domestic violence linked to the men's consideration of their wife as their property. In some countries like Uganda, the practice of bridewealth is also associated with early and forced marriage. In impoverished areas of South Sudan, men feel compelled to steal cattle in order to be able to amass the bridewealth for their prospective wife. Between 2008 and 2012, in the state of Joglei alone, 2 000 people died in the context of these "cattle rustling." (Aleu, 2016)
Yet, bridewealth is still a dynamic and important tradition. Individuals in countries where it is practiced commonly say that it is "part of their culture" and that it is an essential ingredient to a valid customary marriage. Bridewealth is said to be a sign of the man's commitment to care for his wife, as well as a way of demonstrating gratitude to the bride's family for raising her. Women in many countries where bridewealth exists take pride in the high amount they get or, inversely, are ashamed if the amount they received pales in comparison to payments received by their friends or relatives. For many women, bridewealth reflects the value they have in the eyes of their own kin and their society.
Fabienne Labbé and Alexis Black
Aleu, Philip Thon. 2016. "Risking One's Life to Be Able to Marry." Development and Cooperation, June 26 edition. http://www.dandc.eu/en/article/bride-price-tradition-destructive-strong-strife-torn-south-sudan.
Goody, Jack. 1973. "Bridewealth and Dowry in Africa and Eurasia." In Bridewealth and Dowry, by Jack Goody and S. J. Tambiah, 1–58. London, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mahapatra, Lisa, and Sophie Song. 2013. "A Map of China's Bride Price Distribution: Shanghai Tops the List at One Million Yuan and Chongqing the Only City Where Love Is Free." International Business Times, June 06 edition. http://www.ibtimes.com/map-Chinas-bride-price-distribution-shanghai-tops-list-one-million-yuan-chongqing-1293485.
Pajhwok Afghan News. 2015. "Bride Price Lowered, Fine Imposed on Lavish Weddings," July 25 edition. http://www.pajhwok.com/en/2015/07/25/bride-price-lowered-fine-imposed-lavish-weddings
Pretorius, Henk. 2013. Fanie Fourie's Lobola.