Africa: Is Polygamy Universally Harmful?

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The result of a recent research has indicated that polygamy might not be as totally terrible as one might think, after all. Polygamy? Yes, exactly! The practice of having more than one wife. In African and far beyond, polygamy is the order of the day. According to the statistics released by the Tanzanian government, for example, one in every four married women in the rural areas of the country has at least one co-wife.

Many rights groups, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women have vehemently argued that a polygamous marriage is tantamount to gender inequality and that it leads to financial, social and emotional disenfranchisement of women – and to a certain extent, the children as well. As such, according to the groups, polygamy should be discouraged and outlawed.

For those members of the various rights movements, especially those in the Western World, who are not only antagonistic against polygamy, but equally want it banned outright, better get ready for a bombshell. The result of the recent research has suggested that children from polygamous families can thrive better than those from monogamous households. However, before you run down home and arrange for a trailer load of brides, the result of the research is based on the families in the rural areas.

According to the result of the research conducted in Tanzania, polygamous families have more wealth than their monogamous counterparts. Moreover, children from polygamous families seem to be happier than those from monogamous families. Furthermore, polygamous families owe more cows, land, farms in the village than monogamous households, the result of the research indicates. How about the academic performances of the polygamous children?

Hear David Lawson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who headed the research:

“Children in polygamous households either do better or just as well as children in monogamous households within the same village.”

That is not all, the research also reveals that in polygamous marriages, children of the first wives, who usually live in the same house with the husband, tend to display significantly better nutrition and less stunting than those of monogamous families. However, the case is slightly different with the children of later wives, living in separate homes adjacent to the first wife. Although the health of the children of the later wives can be comparable to those from monogamous families, they face danger ““ albeit slightly ““ of food security.

“It’s an important finding because we have this very strong language used by the United Nations and others that polygamy is universally harmful. ” David Lawson emphasized.

Arguing that polygamy can be protective of women, Lawson used Maasai women, who enter into polygamous marriages with wealthier men in their community, as an example. Lawson explained that this group of Massai women, are better off than the educated and monogamous Meru women, who live on fertile land near Arusha.

“Polygamy can be potentially protective within cultural settings where women lack direct control over resources.” Lawson argued.

He went further to intimate that the research is not against improving the lives of women, but that changing marriage laws must take into account the underlying position of women within a society, otherwise their options could be restricted and harmful. Basically, Mr Lawson`s argument is that cultural sensitivity is essential in evaluating polygamy.

Very important the results of the research might be, but certain things seem not to have been taken into consideration during the research.

In as much as the research tends to show that polygamy safeguards the social and economic security of women, there is little or no proof that it does, emotionally. Would you say that polygamy subordinates women? Basically, women enter into polygamous marriages because it is culturally expected and indirectly demanded from them. How many of these women go into polygamy willingly? In certain polygamous cultural settings, when the husband of a woman dies, the brother (some even younger than the deceased man`s wife) automatically acquires the wife as his. The argument for this practice is to “protect“ the women from financial and social hardship, but the question is: is this marriage conceptual and willingly? Would the same society accept it if the woman who lost the husband decides to not re-marry (perhaps, because she takes / prefers to take care of herself financially or simply because she does not like the deceased husband`s brother)?

Examined critically without sentiments, what happens in a (cultural) situation where a woman wants to “marry“ as many husbands as possible ““ as in the case of polygamy? Would this be allowed? If not why, having in mind that men are allowed to do so within a polygamous setting? Wouldn`t her action be obviously labeled a “deviation from the norm“ and the woman viewed with contempt or even derogatorily called a “social deviant“or “prostitute“ (even though a man who marries many wives in a polygamous relationship is hardly labeled that?) “Norm?“ If norms are standard practices, then logically, what applies to A applies to B. Right? Furthermore, what are the norms and who made them? Are the norms made by men for their personal aggrandizement and interests? Who do the norms favour most in a typical (African) social setting? Assuming the norms are meant to favour both men and women and lead to peaceful and symbiotic relationship, then one would expect that any part of the norm (for example, gender roles) can easily be reversed. But that seems not the case. In a situation where the “norm“ forbids women from owning their own resources, limits their own reproductive and marital choices, it makes one wonder whose strategic interests these norms protect. Men or women?

Of course, one cannot talk about changing the norm without first altering our stereotypical attitude of individuals towards gender. In a social situation where women are viewed as less worthy than men, the perception affects the social relationship between the gender in every given situation.

It is only by looking critically at the major beneficiary of the cultural norm that one could say with some degree of certainty whether these unwritten laws, which are supposed to protect women are in fact subordinating them socially, economically and otherwise, and in fact segregating them to a mere appendix to men.