Legalising polygamy

Pictured: Ancentus "Danger" Akuku (shown here in 1984) was widely regarded as Kenya's most prolific polygamist; he married over 100 women during his life.

Pictured: Ancentus "Danger" Akuku (shown here in 1984) was widely regarded as Kenya's most prolific polygamist; he married over 100 women during his life.

Of all the ways a government might change the law to make life easier for women, legalising polygamy probably wouldn't be most people's first suggestion.

After all, what's in it for women? They're almost never the ones allowed to take multiple partners: a 1998 survey of over 1000 societies found men could marry more than once in well over 900 of them, while women had the same option in just four. And while there must be some women who enjoy polygymous life, surely there can't be many who wouldn't prefer not to be at risk of sexually transmitted disease, not to mention all the other inconveniences of sharing one's partner?

Recognising polygamy would bring civil law into line with customary law; abolishing the bride price would do the exact opposite, which presumably explains the controversy. 

So you might think. But in Kenya, legalising polygamy is exactly what the government is proposing as part of a Marriage Bill designed to protect women and children. And it's not even the suggestion that's creating the most controversy.

If the Bill is passed - so far it has been approved by the cabinet but not the parliament - multiple partners be recognised, couples who have been co-habiting for six months will be given legal married status, and - according to the BBC, most controversially of all - the "bride price" will be abolished, meaning men will no longer be legally obliged to pay a dowry to the family of a woman they wish to marry, as those in most of the country's more than 40 ethnic groups currently do.

Advertisement

As a group of proposals, it's a strange mixture. Recognising polygamy would bring civil law into line with customary law; abolishing the bride price would do the exact opposite, which presumably explains the controversy. It's the suggestion most likely to have an impact on the way the average person lives his or her life.

Conferring married status on any couple who share a roof for more than six months, meanwhile, creates a law which alters the significance of a custom. The intention, it seems, is to prevent men from walking away free of responsibility for children fathered out of wedlock. But not all women living in what Kenyans call "come-we-stay" relationships need or want such protection. Even those who do might well find themselves alone if they get pregnant before the six-month cut-off; and as one Kenyan wrote to the newspaper, The Daily Nation: "People have the right to associate in any way they deem suitable, even through loose cohabitation because legal marriages are not always a bed of roses."

 The polygamy ruling is oddly unintrusive by comparison, designed to bring the rights of wives whose cultures already accept multiple marriages in line with women whose cultures only accept one partner. Under the new legislation, the third wife of a polygamous man would have the same property and inheritance rights as the only wife of a monogamous one.

 So there are women who should benefit significantly on a personal, practical level. But it's a rule which also legitimises the custom, one which had been dying out in recent years and which routinely disadvantages women. In fact, given that more than 6 per cent of Kenyan adults have HIV/AIDS, and prevalence among women is significantly higher than among men, it may even be helping to kill them.

 And by proposing to abolish the bride price, the Kenyan government has shown it's prepared to table progressive ideas which won't sit comfortably with everyone. Paying a bride price is a long-standing and still-active tradition in many parts of Africa, seen by many as a symbol of the respectful bond marriage creates between two families. But it also turns women into commodities, who can all too easily be seen as a source of income for their families and as property by their new husbands. Some NGOs working in parts of Africa where a bride price is routinely paid even attribute rising levels of domestic violence to this sense that women belong to the men who have paid to be married to them.

 However, the government is more likely to be considering the two big practical issues facing these laws than how it can make them fiercer. Passing the laws through parliament is likely to be tricky - Kenya's parliament is largely made up of men, many if whom rejected 2007's proposed Marriage Bill on the basis that it gave too many rights to women. And even if they do succeed, the question of how to enforce them remains. With a population of 40 million, most of whom live in rural areas, getting rid of the bride price alone will be a very tall order.

6 comments

  • Polygamy is often seen as a benefit to men. Deeper examination shows otherwise. Given roughly equal numbers of men and women, for men to have multiple wives it means that many men won't have a wife at all (often because they had died in battle, hunting or other community service). What polygamy means it that a few rich men can afford to have multiple wives and be able to reproduce with dozens or even hundreds of children. Given the hypergamous nature of most women there will always be a large number of women who would rather be the 3rd, 4th or even 20th wife of a rich man than the only wife of a pauper. Men with multiple wives generally, but not always support their wives and their children, occasionally you might find a man sponging of multiple wives or girlfriends. You might find a woman who wants multiple husbands, but she will have the only womb and therefore won't be have many more children than if she had one husband.

    What the article way saying was not that men were being given the privilege of having many wives, rather, the Kenyan Government was ensuring that they would have to support all of their wives and children.

    Commenter
    JohnA
    Date and time
    November 15, 2012, 12:20PM
    • Yes, just look at how empowered women are in cultures that allow polygamy. Those Afghani and Saudi women are the envy of the world, and even in the USA we can see that polygamous Mormon women have such better outcomes than the general population. Don't even get me started on polygamy on the African continent - now there's an example of your happy, healthy, thriving women right there.

      Polygamous women really do benefit from that "hypergamous nature" that all women share - just look at how wealthy, long-lived, socially empowered and educated they are! Look at their incredibly low rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and the virtual absence of forced marriages upon underage girls. Look at the luxury they live in, and the stability they have both legally and economically. And, most of all, look how happy they are to live in a system where they can reside in a flock, like brood hens, and be treated with all the respect of a replaceable household appliance. I'm sure they think it would be ridiculous to expect to have an entire spouse to themselves, or that women might deserve equal treatment.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 2:00PM
    • Yes, because all women care about is marrying a rich man. Nothing else, not love, not liberty, just money.

      Well done, sir, you truly have us females figured out!

      Oh, wait, no you don't.

      Commenter
      MMS
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 7:37PM
    • Only the truly intellectually bankrupt can't understand the difference between causation and correlation.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 8:12PM
  • So basically they introduced are working towards a conception of state recognised de facto relationships?

    Commenter
    d89d
    Date and time
    November 15, 2012, 3:31PM
    • An often cited opinion, is that Poligamy is to the benefit of the male, as the ultimate male fantasy. However this is rarely born out in reality. Multiple wives usually bring conflict, jealousy and tension into the relationship... Which is stressful for all concerned - particularly the husband who has to smooth all those ruffled feathers. Why any man would want this, I do not know.

      This change I believe was created to provide extra-marital partners with a means of aquiring welfare. Which is similar to child support within western countries.

      Commenter
      Benjamin
      Location
      NSW
      Date and time
      November 16, 2012, 12:41PM
      Comments are now closed