Is dowry still relevant in Rwanda today?

A young lady being given away during a traditional marriage ceremony known as ‘Gusaba’. Stakeholders have called for the revision of dowry. / Courtesy

In the Rwandan tradition, dowry was and is still a common practice before a couple gets married. The practice has however, evolved over the years from giving cows as a symbol of unity to families negotiating for and opting for money.

A survey conducted in 2017, by the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC) showed that dowry demanded is dependent on the background of the girl, her education, job, and family, among others.

Dowry can either be cows or money depending on the aforementioned conditions.

This has resulted into a wide debate over the relevance of dowry in Rwanda today, with some pointing out that the tradition is a hindrance towards women empowerment and gender equality.

For this reason, Rwanda Women’s Network through their FEM Dialogue, a safe space for conversation on issues for the advancement of gender equality, organised a discussion around the practice of dowry where policy makers and participants shared their perspective on the topic: “Dowry: Is it Still Relevant?”.

In her view, Peninah Abatoni who represented Rwanda Women’s Network, who was also on the panel said that dowry today has become more than just a symbol, especially because it is attached to economic value with negotiations involved, sometimes going beyond the groom’s capacity.

Betty Mutesi, Country Director at International Alert, another panelist believes that dowry was based on a patriarchal system with the man paying the dowry not vice versa. This is why she believes that dowry was a token of appreciation adding that although this has evolved, it remained in the same sense of inequality.

“Traditionally marriages were arranged which is why the groom’s family paid for bride price. Today, young people are choosing their own spouses but the decision of the dowry has not been left to them,” she said.

Olive Uwamiraya, a participant resonated with Mutesi saying that the practice has perpetuated gender inequalities and a hindrance to shared decision making in marriage wondering how it is different from bride price and why tradition has not evolved to make it a decision between the couple.

“If today we are not making decisions for our children at their legal age, why is it that we need to emphasise on the dowry as well and not evolve with today’s decision making?,” she wondered.

L-R: The panelists Peninah Abatoni, Jacques Nzabonimpa and Betty Mutesi and moderator Novella Nikwigize. / Courtesy

Sharon Icyishatse, another participant also raised concerns on the inequalities posed by tradition for orphaned girls.

Due to the tragedy that befell this country in 1994, there are so many girls that were orphaned and struggled to raise themselves. When it is time for marriage she will get any family member to officiate the marriage, which family will demand for dowry without her consent.

Emma-Marie Bugingo from Pro-femmes/Twese Hamwe, on the other hand argued that while it has been claimed that dowry is Rwandan tradition, it is practiced differently in different parts of the country with people paying different kinds of dowry and others not paying at all.

She urged the Ministry of Sports and Culture to define one tradition to fit into the Rwandan context and benefit everybody since there is no law that obliges a man to provide dowry.

Jacques Nzabonimpa, Director of Culture at Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC) who was a panelist explained that in the Rwandan tradition, dowry was a symbol uniting two families and was supposed to endure overtime.

“While dowry has been monetized today, it has changed in terms of value because cows were meant to reproduce and be given back to the boy’s family, as a return of the dowry (ibirongoranwa),” he said.

He also agreed that monetized dowry has brought about a sense of inequality as the return of the dowry, which today are household items from the bride’s side, are not given in equal measure. He also explained that although culture has evolved, the different practices in Rwanda are as a result of adopting foreign practices and disguising it into culture.

Can the practice be made relevant for Rwandans today?

In his recommendation, Nzabonimpa mentioned that in Rwanda’s tradition a man asks for the girl’s hand in marriage and it is only fair that he pays the dowry. However, for the sake of selfish individuals trying to make wealth, disguised into dowry, Rwandans need to be taken back to their roots and educated on the real essence of dowry so that even if it is monetized, the return of the dowry is paid back in equal measure.

Mutesi suggested that while dowry is not a bad practice since it unites both families, it should be done in a way that fits into the gender equality aspect that is in today’s context.

“The dowry should remain for the purpose of tradition but in the sense that it brings about equality and becomes relevant. Not everybody can afford a cow so the traditional context cannot fit into today’s modern world but if dowry must be there then it has to be 50/50 with both the groom and bride’s side giving a token of appreciation in equal measure,” she said.

Abatoni, on the other hand suggested that since the country has evolved into conflicting traditions there should be guidelines and community dialogues where Rwandans can decide on a unifying practice that complements today’s societal setting in respect to dowry.

Mary Balikungeri, founder and director of Rwanda Women’s Network said that the purpose of the discussion was to help draw a line and agree on the traditions that Rwandans want to keep and take the recommendations to the government to implement.

“We need to critically look at equality, understand it and connect it to the evolution that we are in and the impact it is having on the current generation,” she said.