Does the ancient African practice of ilobolo—the bride price paid by the bridegroom and his family for his wife—instigate or promote violence against women, and how does society perceive gender based violence resulting from this tradition?
As Zimbabwe and the world acknowledges its annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign from 25 November 2016 to 10 December 2016, Chitownews brings you a series of discussion papers full of thought provoking ideas focussed on GBV as we try to deepen understanding and appreciation of issues surrounding GBV. This is the first part based on a paper by
Unisa researcher Dr Nokuthula Mazibuko- Entitled,
iLobolo, the bride price that comes ‘at a price’ and the narratives of gender violence in Mamelodi, a South African township’. She looks at how the abuse of ilobolo can be a form of violence that has made South Africa one of the countries with the highest rate of femicide in the world.
iLobolo, she explains, ‘serves as an exchange between two families to legitimise a relationship skewed towards relocating the woman to a new household. “The ilobolo is usually paid in the form of cattle, cash, or both, before the marriage ceremony. While this mark of honour is every woman’s dream, it sits at the core of what has often been described as ‘the culture of violence’ in many South African homes.”
Mazibuko focused on how this ancient practice instigates or promotes violence in intimate relationships. She describes domestic violence as a desire to exert power and control over women, which falls under the rubric of a culturally entrenched pattern in traditional communities. And while the term domestic violence is not necessarily gendered, domestic violence is often associated with women as victims and men as perpetrators.
“South Africa has many such communities where domestic violence is culturally entrenched, and where men exert power and control over women; moreover, domestic violence is on the increase in South Africa. A cultural twist to domestic violence is that in certain cultures, beating a wife and violence to a wife is tolerated as a response to infidelity or other infractions to the family honour by her.”
Mazibuko says that in some communities, the term domestic violence does not even exist. “In other communities, religious and social norms hold the view that domestic violence is a private matter between partners rather than a crime for which the perpetrator should be held legally responsible. It is also observed that some women might have trouble recognising domestic violence as a problem for which help should be sought.”
She adds that ideas and attitudes portrayed in African cultural notions of male patriarchy are abound within marital relationships where the subordination of women is underscored by the tradition of ilobolo, which reinforces the notion that a husband has purchased and now owns his wife, including her labour and sexuality.
“In fact, the custom of ilobolo underscores the power dynamics in African communities…Moreover, the payment of the bride price to the family of the wife prior to the marriage makes it difficult for women to leave abusive husbands, unless their families are willing to return the amount paid.”
The controlling effects ilobolo has on black women
Focusing on the prevalence of violence against women in the low-income black neighbourhood of Mamelodi Township in Pretoria, South Africa, Mazibuko conducted in-depth interviews and observation with 27 female participants aged between 23 to 63. These participants had experienced emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, and physical violence in their intimate relationships. The majority of women had high school education and university degrees. All were employed, in secured jobs, either as high, primary or pre-primary educators, nurses, social workers, or working in government offices. The majority of the women were married, while a few were widowed or unmarried.
She found that often the abuse of culture is used to perpetrate and justify violence against women in an African environment. “The negative aspects of the practice of ilobolo result in the institution of marriage ceasing to be a partnership and rather becoming an absolute dictatorship of the husband. The participants highlighted the controlling effects that ilobolo has on them as black women. The findings on ilobolo in this research uncovered the positive and negative side of ilobolo; both these sides testify to the powers ilobolo has over black women.”
Dr Mazibuko continues: “There is clearly an element of power and demand of authority which come from the abuse of ilobolo. It can therefore be viewed as a positive or a negative practice, depending on the circumstances and the meanings attached to it. iLobolo reinforces the notion that a husband has purchased his wife, including her labour and her sexuality. Then there is the abuse of ilobolo by the mother of the bride by requesting an unreasonable amount. This does cause a risk of domestic violence when the man’s expectations are not met.”
She adds: “The role of capitalism and money in practices such as ilobolo must be monitored, because as part of aggravating circumstances it may emasculate men, who may then operate in a backlash mode. This research has tried to demonstrate that African culture has loads of dynamism in the current day and age, in part characterised by a primordialist quest (such as seeking for a genuine African way), but in part also largely patriarchal within its diversity and mix of traditions, showing a myriad ways of doing patriarchy.”
Speaking more broadly, Mazibuko said: “I think we have to acknowledge the fact that domestic violence happens even in communities without ilobolo. It is important to stress that between socialisation, social ideology and specific practices (such as ilobolo), different communities experience different aggravating circumstances to domestic violence. We may need to explain, through further research, whether certain groups are worse off than others.”
She concludes by saying that in order to decrease and eliminate violence against women and children, it is important for all of us to understand how culture is being twisted in order to abuse and suppress women in this country. “Both men and women are guilty of this, therefore we all have a role to play and we must take action.”
*Compiled by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester
This article was adapted from Dr Mazibuko’s paper, iLobolo, the bride price that comes ‘at a price’ and the narratives of gender violence in Mamelodi, a South African township.