Cows-for-Bride Inflation Spurs Cattle Theft Among Mundari in South Sudan
Some men in South Sudan who otherwise can’t afford a bride turn to stealing livestock in order to buy a wife and gain status, said Gambiri, citing a friend who is now a cattle rustler. A surge in “bride price” has fueled cattle raids in which more than 2,000 people are killed each year.
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...an educated wife in his cattle-herding Mundari tribe in South Sudan costs 50 cows, 60 goats and 30,000 Sudanese pounds ($12,000) in cash.
At that price, some men who otherwise can’t afford a bride turn to stealing livestock in order to buy a wife and gain status, said Gambiri, citing a friend who is now a cattle rustler. A surge in “bride price” has fueled cattle raids in which more than 2,000 people are killed each year.
In rural communities, where livestock is the measure of wealth, the ripple effects of the surge in bride prices pose one of the biggest social and economic challenges for the world’s newest nation. About half of South Sudan’s 8 million people live on less than $1 a day and 85 percent of the adult population is illiterate, according to the UN.
Since the end of a civil war, in which almost 2 million people died, thousands of men have returned home looking for wives. Greater competition has triggered a bidding war.
Bride prices have surged 44 percent since 2005, when a U.S.-brokered peace accord came into force, and currently half of the male population in rural areas can’t afford a bride, according to an unpublished United Nations report obtained by Bloomberg News.
Frustrated by the prohibitive cost of getting married, some aspiring grooms go into debt. Others join armed gangs of as many as 50 men that plot raids. Two-thirds of respondents said men had to raid livestock to pay the bride price, according to the UN-Norwegian People’s Aid study that interviewed 1,284 men and 1,392 women between January and March last year in five of 10 state capitals.
The study found that today’s cattle raiders are poor, uneducated youths who were born in the shadow of the armed conflict between the Muslim north and the south, where traditional religions and Christianity predominate.
Though Dinka men are allowed to marry as many women as they want, most can only afford one wife. Traditionally, the bride price is paid by the groom´s family to consolidate an alliance between families from different clans, and men seek to marry outside of their clan to extend their lineage.
By custom, the groom’s family distributes cows to members of the bride’s family, down to uncles and brothers. That pattern has changed. Survival considerations now shape the rules, and the bride’s parents tend to keep the cattle.
Bride price is linked to societies where women play a key role in agriculture, especially where rudimentary farm tools such as a hoe are used, according to Anderson, who wrote a 2007 paper on the economics of bride price. When a husband’s family pays for a bride, they gain ownership of her labor as well as ability to bear children.