Polygamy, the ancient practice of having more than one spouse, is legal in over 50 countries and remains common in at least 25 African countries, including Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria. In Nigeria, polygamy is more prevalent in the Northern region—and in the 12 states governed by Islamic sharia law—where more than a third of married women reported having one or more co-wives.
Who practices polygamy?
Polygamy is an umbrella term; the more common situation of a man with multiple wives is polygyny, and the reverse is polyandry. Although polygyny is more common among Muslims today, it did not originate in Islam. Polygyny has been traced to the 1st century preindustrial revolution society but the practice likely started before then as there are many references to it in ancient texts like the Christian Bible.
Polygyny has been acceptable in many cultures over time. It was permitted in pre-Christian Iboland where a man could take as many wives as he wished to bear him many children, particularly sons. Some Ibo cultures in the Southeastern part of the country also permit polygynous unions.
Polygyny Poverty Nexus
There is no conclusive evidence that polygamy (or polygyny) causes poverty, but the two share a strong relationship. In Nigeria, regions with a high prevalence of poverty also have the highest polygamy rates. The 2017 Demographic Health Survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that 44% and 47% of women aged 15-49 in the Northeast and Northwest are in polygamous unions, and 20% and 25% of men are in the same. These regions are also the poorest in Nigeria.
The relationship holds across countries. Countries with the highest rates of polygyny also have the lowest income levels, barring a few exceptions like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Kenya, 43% of polygamous households are poor compared to 27% of monogamous ones.
We can see why this would be the case: a man takes on multiple wives and does not have the economic resources to cater for them, and this leaves them destitute. This is likely to happen because of the demographic characteristics of countries with high prevalence of polygyny: women marry extremely early, the age-gap between husbands and wives is large, fertility rate is high, typically a bride price is paid at marriage, and women have limited economic power. This means that women in polygynous marriages are tied to the financial health of their husbands.
Not a Simple Story
But it is easy to draw hasty conclusions from the strong correlation between polygyny and poverty. In the past, explanations for the polygyny-poverty nexus have highlighted the competition for women. The idea is that in polygamous countries, wealthier men would hoard wives, and the resulting inequality would feed crime and disorder.
However, evidence suggests that wealthier men in countries with high levels of polygyny tend to take fewer wives. We still see polygamous rich men, e.g., the Governor of Bauchi State recently added another wife, but as mentioned before, polygyny is more popular with poorer men. In light of that, it may be the interaction of polygyny and poverty that is a problem; a rich man is unlikely to become poor by taking on many wives, but a poor man shortens his odds of growing wealthy by staying the same.
Why is polygyny illegal in so many countries?
Polygamy is illegal (mostly in western countries) as such unions are considered unequal for the participating parties. This stretches beyond the spouses; children in polygamous marriages may not experience equal attention from their father.
On the subject of children, inheritance may be messier in polygamous homes. Potential brawls over inheritance when one spouse dies can cause conflicts to arise within households. This is especially true in countries with blurry inheritance laws or property rights—and these are the places that tend to permit polygamy.
At the same time, polygamy can be much costlier (for society) in places where it is banned. For example, social security costs will be higher in the event of a man’s death when multiple spouses are entitled to his benefits.
Also, polygamous unions are popular vehicles for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, chlamydia, and syphilis. The presence of many multiple sexual partners makes the likelihood of transmissions very high. However, some research has disputed this claim, stating that HIV is in fact less prevalent in polygynous communities as the partners are more careful and practice only safe intercourse. However, chances of contracting other STIs were not ruled out as non-monogamy remains a risk factor for the transmission of STIs.
Polygyny and Gender Equality
The final issue with polygamy is the gender imbalance. Polyandry remains illegal almost everywhere polygyny is practiced except for the Tibetans in Nepal, parts of China and Northern India, where fraternal polyandry is practiced, in which two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the wife having equal "sexual access" to them.
This inequality is characterised by rigid gender roles usually embedded in culture and religion, so hardly meets resistance. Moreover, since society places a lot of expectations on women to get married, women are likely to marry someone already married than remain single. But these inequalities reinforce the patriarchal ideas that the man is head and provider of the family, and the women must care for children, as well as cook and clean. It is no surprise then that countries where polygyny is practiced also score poorly on gender equality measures.
At the same time, gender equality (or empowerment) reduces the rate or acceptability of polygyny. Countries with better gender equality indices tend to be monogamous.
The relationship between polygamy and gender equality seems clear; the one between polygamy and poverty, less so. And public perceptions are similarly varied. Views range from extremely negative, citing rivalry, lack of unity, distrust, love and respect as issues, to slightly positive but citing lack of education and financial independence for the woman as a major barrier to a peaceful union. Without a clear social consensus of the costs of polygamy, it is likely to remain popular in large swathes of Nigeria.