Rising dowry rates in South Sudan are fuelling violence and encourage cattle raiding, a recent report of the US Institute of Peace has said. Bride price has gone up four-fold in some communities since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Akoey Barach did not live to marry the man of her heart. The 18-year-old girl from Bor died after torture by her father and brothers for choosing a husband they did not approve of.
Her father, Madol Alier, had rejected her proposed groom because he was a poor man with no cows to pay as bride price. When she ran away to her lover’s home, Alier had her brought back. He beat her up before ordering his sons and their cousins to continue flogging the girl.
She died the following day.
Her 19-year-old sister, who had accompanied Barach to her lover’s home, was also tortured but survived with injuries. Alier was arrested but the charges against him were later dropped. This is not an isolated incident.
Many girls in South Sudan grapple with the tradition of forced marriages, while boys face the challenge of rising dowry demands.
to a recent study by the US Institute of Peace, the single most important concern of young men in the world’s newest nation is their inability to meet escalating bride price.
Dowry prices have gone up by 44% since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the authors of the study say. As a result, half of the male population in rural areas can no longer afford a bride.
A Mundari girl from a good family cost 12 cows in the past. Now such girl goes for 50 cows, 60 goats and 30,000 South Sudanese Pounds.
Dinka girls fetch even higher bride price. They cost up to 300 cows, up from a maximum of 70 cows in the past. The increase in bride price has largely been blamed on government officials,
both at state level and in the government of South Sudan, says the report.
It quotes a 21-year-old man as saying: “People who work for GOSS have money.
So when they want to marry a girl, they pay a lot. This makes it more expensive for everyone else.”
This bidding war might also have been caused by the return of wealthy South Sudanese from the Diaspora, such as the US, Canada and Australia.
“These people go home with thousands of dollars in their briefcases and participate in bride bidding that always leaves the youth at home, who have less cows, unable to marry the girls they have loved for years,” Maker Marial, a South Sudanese living in the US, wrote on the Sudan Tribune website recently.
Excessive bride price is partly to blame for the violence that has erupted in several states in recent months. The report says it encourages young men to join rebel groups and participate in cattle rustling.
"Unable to meet the (dowry) demands, many male youth enlist in militias, join cattle raids, or seek wives from different ethnic groups or countries.”
Half of rural men cannot afford a bride
Two out of three people interviewed in a study by Norwegian People’s Aid said men had to
raid livestock to pay the bride price. High dowry rates also spur corruption. The report
quotes a 45-year old man as saying: “Let’s say I am a son of a government official. I want
to marry a girl and her parents demand a very high dowry price. My father will now use government money to pay the dowry.” Skyrocketing dowry demands have a negative impact on
girls too. They are increasingly viewed as property that can generate wealth for the family.
“A daughter has been brought up by her family and is their source of income”, explained one man in the study. As a result, parents have a strong desire to have more children as more daughters promise more wealth. It also encourages men to have more wives.
“Polygamy can greatly increase the number of daughters a man has, and thus significantly increase prospects for financial gain.” The practice of dowry leaves girls with little control over their lives, the study points out. Since she is married off to the highest bidder, a girl has no say in the choice of her husband.
“If the girl is found with a boyfriend, her family can kill her,” a high-placed government official was quoted as saying.
“If she is impregnated by the boyfriend, she can be beaten to death.” Some people interviewed also noted that high dowry is related to domestic violence. “High payment of dowry has increased the pain. (The husband is) paying so many cattle, so he mistreats you”, said a woman interviewed in Bentiu.
A government official put it like this: “Paying dowry for a woman is like slavery. You have
no voice before your husband.” Divorce is not an option for a woman who finds herself abused
or neglected by her husband. If she decides to leave him, her parents will be forced to pay back
the dowry. To escape this web of control, some girls decide to run away with the man they love. Those who are caught, like Barach, suffer severe punishment.
As government officials in the study explained: “Attempting elopement without paying
dowry is a serious offence often punishable by long prison sentences, brutal beatings and even
death”. Many youth and adults interviewed by the US Institute for Peace recommended government laws that set limits to dowry payments.
Traditional leaders should help the government establish reasonable limits to bride price, says the report, referring to the Shilluk king who has set a dowry limit of 10 cows per marriage.
Equally important are laws that protect the rights of girls before and after marriage , the report concludes.
There is need to regulate bride price – Minister
Asked for a reaction to the rising dowry price that is suffocating South Sudan’s youth, both political leaders and ordinary South Sudanese said there was need for the Government to set a ceiling.
“We cannot completely abolish the payment of bride price because it is the custom of some of our communities. They look at it as a pride, not as selling our girls,” said Dr. Cirino Hiteng, the Minister of Youth and Culture.