I was stuck in a violent marriage because I could not refund dowry
Posted Saturday, March 23 2013 at 00:00
Married off by her parents, her bride price was soon swept away by an epidemic. When she needed it to escape the violence in her marriage, it was no longer available. Grace Apio narrates her ordeal to Richard Otim.
Grace Apio is now 28 and got married to a man twice her age 10 years ago. Her parents had received three cows in dowry for their daughter, a traditional seal for every legitimate customary marriage in Teso, but the marriage never lasted long.
“It was an arranged marriage. I never loved the man I was married to but for respect of my parents, I just went in for the marriage because my parents wanted some bulls to help them in ploughing their gardens,” Apio says, adding that the dowry was only paid six years later after she had long cohabited with the man.
“I, meanwhile, discovered the man I had got married to was a drunkard. Whenever I commented on his habits and cautioned him against excessive drinking, he would beat me up seriously,” she narrates. Apio, who has sought for a divorce since 2009, says she could not put up with conditions of the marriage, but because she could not pay back the dowry, she hang on to the horrendous matrimony until 2011 when she moved back to her parents’ home.
The animals her parents had received as dowry had died of a livestock epidemic. Just as she was considering remarrying as the last resort to getting the cows to pay back her first husband, one of her maternal uncles came to her rescue and paid back part of the dowry.
Apio had five children in the marriage. She moved with three younger ones, a six-year-old girl, and two boys aged two and three years respectively. The man came for the girl and the three-year-old boy at the beginning of this year. Apio now looks after the youngest who is suckling.
Counting on the Bill
“My uncle helped us to pay back only two of the three cows, four goats and Shs50,000, that we owed,” Apio says. She is worried though the bailout will not last long, as it may not be possible to get the balance of the dowry her former husband is demanding for relentlessly. “He wants all his animals back. I am happy if blocking repayment of dowry after separation is what government has come up with in this new law. Maybe this will save my parents from the worries about the dowry debt,” she says.
A mother of six, Akello, from Magoro in Katakwi District, has gone through similar tribulations, toiling to pay back the money, goats and cows paid as her dowry, in vain. Her parents had been paid a bride price of four bulls, which they had long wished to own to enable them plough their gardens.
“It was not working out in the marriage as I had anticipated. I wanted a divorce and prayed another man would one day approach me for my hand in marriage,” Akello said.
Women toiling to pay off debt
Traditionally in Teso, as long as the dowry, in most cases in form of cattle, goats and money, is not paid back, the woman cannot remarry and the number of animals given to parents in bride price in the past were very many, so, most times women had no option but to endure a bad marriage for the sake of saving their parents from the burden of paying back the animals.
The bride’s brothers usually used the animals to marry, so, that when a marriage went bad, there was nothing to pay back the dowry with immediately. “If I married a second man and he could not produce the dowry on time, it would not be possible for me to get out of the first marriage, which I had endured with many years of mental and physical torture,” Akello said.
Other evils women suffer for dowry
Several other women in Teso have equally been trapped in such agonising marriages just because items given to the parents as bride price during the marriage could not be paid back on time. Because of the customary beliefs attached to dowry among the Iteso, a woman is perceived as belonging to the clan and this results in most widows being forcefully inherited by their brothers-in-law.
“You become like a property of the clan. Every male claims you are their wife. They can do anything with you because you were bought with their cows,” Akello says. The police officer in charge, Family Welfare and Child Protection in Soroti, Florence Adongo, says alcoholism and negligence to provide for the family by most men is the cause of 65 per cent of the domestic violence cases in the district and this is representative of the picture across the sub-region. She said women, particularly those from poor families, have been living in bondage of the stringent traditions about customary marriages that some parents have ended up in the past for failing pay back the dowry.
“Some women have had to flee to unknown places and when the man fails to trace where his wife is, it is the parents who face the consequences,” Adongo reveals.
A father paid back with jail time
A 78-year old man, Eriya Opolot said he once served a one year sentence in jail after his son-in-law dragged him to the Sub-County court because he had nothing to pay back in cows for what he received as dowry for his daughter. “One of her brothers had immediately used the eight cows to marry himself a wife. My daughter could not stay in the marriage for long. I don’t know what happened to their marriage and she came back home but because I had nothing to give back to her husband, I went to jail,” Opolot explains.
The officer in charge, Criminal Investigations Directorate at Ngora Police Station, James Okodel, adds that most of the gender-based violence reported in the district are mostly connected to complaints of infidelity for which the existing provisions of the Penal Code are in favour of.