Daughters have become a high-priced commodity in Zimbabwe, where a dowry has become a means of escaping poverty in a rapidly declining economy. "When people are mired in such hunger as we have been seeing in this country for over seven years, they will do anything to survive," Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist, told IRIN.
Parents have taken to demanding "absurd" amounts of money and other commodities from their in-laws. "It is not surprising that many parents are looking to the bride-price as one way to make ends meet," he said.
The dowry, a cultural practice, "has ceased to be a social problem and now needs to be seen from an economic point of view, with girl children being used to generate income," Makwiramiti said. "Unless the economic meltdown is addressed, we will continue to see parents commodifying their daughters."
Most Zimbabweans are struggling to survive: unemployment is out of control, inflation has topped 4,000 percent, and 80 percent of the population is living below the poverty datum line.
Daughters as a pension fund
Moses Jaison, 54, from the populous suburb of Mabvuku in southeastern Harare, the capital, last year betrothed his daughter Miriam, 15, still a minor in Zimbabwean law, to a polygamous businessman thirty years older than she was.
"The pain of seeing my family go without food and other basic necessities drove me into such a decision," Jaison told IRIN. "At that age, Miriam should have been in school and, being as intelligent as she is, might have ended up as a doctor or pilot, but poverty has rendered that only a pipedream."
Miriam stopped going to school at the age of eleven, after her father was laid off when the company that had employed him for thirty years closed down. Miriam's husband paid Jaison Z$15 million [US$115] and settled the mortgage on the family home, which had almost been repossessed when they fell behind with the monthly instalments.
Jaison barely scrapes a living by selling sculptures along the road linking Harare with Mutare, a city about 280km southeast of the capital, but because tourism has plummeted as a result of Zimbabwe's poor image, sales are slow and he does not earn nearly enough to take care of his wife and five children.
However, Miriam found living with three other wives too demanding and recently sought refuge at a local non-governmental organisation that promotes the welfare of girl children.
"That has worsened my plight, because the businessman who had married her has told me that I should give him back what he paid me as a [dowry]," said Jaison. "That money has run out, and the police have indicated that they want to arrest me for ill-treating my daughter by marrying her off before she attained the legal age for marriage, and her husband could also be taken in for making a minor his wife."
Rich men, who have often generated their wealth illegally by trading in foreign currency or fuel on the informal market, do not have a problem in meeting the demands of in-laws, but those who do not earn much find the wooing tough.
Grooms or cash cows
John Matiza, 29, who works in South Africa as a restaurant waiter, had no choice but to break up with his girlfriend of five years because her parents said they wanted to be paid in foreign currency, a condition he could not afford. "My heart bleeds to realise that I cannot marry the woman of my dreams simply because her parents think I am a cash cow," Matiza told IRIN.
|My heart bleeds to realise that I cannot marry the woman of my dreams simply because her parents think I am a cash cow|
"I earn just over 1,000 South African rand [US$143] a month, and can hardly save money because accommodation and transport are expensive in Johannesburg, yet my would-be in-laws wanted me to pay them R12,000 [US$1,725]." His lover's parents also demanded 15 head of cattle, or an additional R15,000, part of which could be paid as monthly groceries sourced in South Africa.
Basic commodities are in short supply in Zimbabwe, and many people have to rely on items being brought in from neighbouring South Africa or Botswana.
More than three million Zimbabweans are estimated to have left the country in search of employment in other countries since the economy started deteriorating in 2000. The majority do menial jobs and work under harsh conditions, but are consoled by the fact that they can remit money to their families and relatives.
"My lover's parents come from a poor background and they should have been able to appreciate that money is not easy to raise; maybe they thought that I made much money, since I work in South Africa," said Matiza.
The parents also argued that because they had educated their daughter up to college level, and she would have looked after them, they needed to recoup the costs by asking for a high bride price.
Matiza went to pay the dowry, and begged for the demands to be reduced until he and his relatives were eventually forcefully removed from the house. His prospective in-laws insisted that their daughter would wait for a man who could make them live in comfort, and told him they would not accept a marriage "full of love but no money for our daughter and us".
"Over the years I have seen so many couples - over whose marriages I presided - break down because material considerations are now taking precedence over love. People are marrying for money and, no sooner have they started staying together, do more problems emerge," Tim Foroma, a pastor with a Pentecostal church, told IRIN.
He said he was outraged by some of the demands the in-laws made, such as asking to be bought houses, cellphones or even cars. "Some of them are even ordering their sons-in-law to put them on medical aid schemes or funeral policies, just in case they fall sick and don't have the money to cover the expense, or in the event that they die."