August 6, 2023

Polygamy: What recent studies reveal!

Polygamy: What recent studies reveal!

By Uwaoma Christabel Chikelum

Polygamy is a hotly contested practice and open to widespread of  interpretation/ misunderstanding depending on individual point of view.


This practice is defined as a relationship between either one husband and multiple wives or one wife and multiple husbands.

Today, ‘polygamy’ almost exclusively takes the form of polygyny: one husband with multiple wives. Polygyny is a form of plural marriage, in which a man is allowed more than one wife. In countries where polygamy is illegal such as the United Kingdom, United States and Canada, someone who marries a person while still married to another commits the crime of bigamy and there are resultant consequences for that according to the law of every country that is against such practice. 

Polygamy is neither exclusively Western nor non-Western: it has been practised by some Hindus, Mormons, Muslims and other cultural and religious groups. In the pre-colonial era in Nigeria, polygynous marriage was very common; it was mainly for economic reasons and family growth, in situation were they were fewer number of members.

Women and children were more of economic instruments for the men who were mostly farmers and agrorian in nature. Since the land was cultivated with ‘simple’ means of labour, many hands were needed for maximal cultivation of land and this might have enhanced the prevalence of polygyny – which ensured the availability of labour, children and wives (Olutayo & Omobowale, 2006). 

However, the current economic factors in the country, have driven the love of polygyny out of men, farming no longer is the main source of livelihood, but blue-collar jobs.This though, is still practiced in some parts of Nigeria.

Globally, acceptance of polygamy is common. According to Diouf (2010), out of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry. At the same time, even within societies that allow polygyny, the actual practice of polygyny still occurs unevenly. There are exceptions: in Nigeria, for example nearly 47% of  marriages are multiple. Within polygamous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth, power, and fame.

Nevertheless, the number of polygamous marriages is ‘relatively miniscule’ despite the cross cultural presence of polygamy (Gher, 2008). The standard of debate over the permissibility of polygamy has been characteristically poor. Thus, a proponent of polygamy argued that it is acceptable, on the grounds that many in Western societies also cohabit with multiple partners, such as married men keeping relationship with mistresses. He also argued that such persons form relationships that involve ‘emotional commitments’ that are ‘not easily terminated’, not unlike polygamy (Mitsunuga, 2005). An additional problem is that this defence of polygamy reduces marriage to only a sexual relationship. On the contrary, the institution of marriage encompasses far more than sexual relations, but extends to a host of other functions such as property rights, family alliances, and raising of children. Not only is it a mistake to view polygamy and extramarital affairs as the same, but it is also a mistake to view marriage in terms of sexual relations alone and gratification of one’s desire.

One argument against polygamy is that it is more likely to present harmful effects, especially towards women and children, than monogamy, as seen in the decisions made in the case of Rex v. Inyang and R. V. Princewell. There are several studies that appear to support this position. For example, women in polygamous marriages are at higher risk of low self-esteem, as well as depression, than women in non-polygamous relationships (Slonim-Nero & Al-Krenawi, 2006), polygamous families have distinct house problems usually stemming from jealousy between co-wives over the husband’s affections and resources, polygamous unions are also popular vehicles for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, chlamydia, and syphilis, polygynous marriages contravene a woman’s right to equality with men, other studies show that these women also enjoy less marital satisfaction and more problematic mother-child relationship, and polygamous unions often lead to poverty. In Nigeria, regions with high prevalence of poverty also have the highest polygamy rates.

 In addition, further studies demonstrate that women in polygamous marriages are especially vulnerable to depression while being pregnant and after childbirth, as their husbands become more likely to turn their attention/affection to their other wives(Ho-Yen, 2007). Women in polygamous marriages are typically subservient to their husbands who hold their wives primarily responsible for childbearing/ emotional support(Gher,2008).

Nigeria is part of the “polygamy belt, a region in West Africa and Central Africa where polygamy is common and deeply rooted in the culture. Nigeria is estimated as having the fifth highest polygamy prevalence in the world, with 28% of the population living in polygamous marriages, with only four countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Gambia and Niger) having a higher prevalence.

According to the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2008, a third of married women in Nigeria are in polygamous unions and 16% of married men (aged 15-49) have more than one wife. Under civil law, Nigeria does but recognize polygamous unions. However 12 out of the 36 Nigerian States recognize polygamous marriages as being equivalent to monogamous marriages. All twelve states are governed by the Sharia Law. The states which are all northern region, include; Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara which allow for a man to take more than one wife. When it comes to matrimonial matters and causes, Nigeria practices what I would like to colloquially refer to as “dual system”. This system recognises two marriages – Islamic/customary marriage and statutory marriage. The Islamic/customary marriage allows for polygamy. Under the Islamic law, a man can marry up to four wives. The condition is that it should be practised  by men who have the capacity to manage it successfully and treat their wives equally (see, Surah 4:29). Similarly, men who choose  to marry under customary law can marry several wives. Unlike Islamic law, there is no limit to the number of  wives they can marry in the customary law.

On the other hand, statutory marriage or what is referred to as “marriage under the act” or “court marriage”, is a  marriage contracted or regulated by the Marriage act and Matrimonial Causes act. It is the “voluntary union of one man and one wife to the exclusion of others” otherwise known as “monogamy”. The marriage is either celebrated in the marriage registry or in a licensed place of worship which is usually in a church after the issuance of a registrar’s certificate. This kind of marriage is often called a “white wedding”. Once marriage is contracted pursuant to this, the man cannot marry another wife while the marriage subsists. If a person commits the crime of bigamy; by marrying someone else while the first marriage subsists, he or she is liable to five years imprisonment by virtue of Section 46 of the Marriage Act and seven years for the same offence under Section 370 of the Criminal Code Act, this is also seen in Section 35 of the Marriage Act.

Most times people mistake double-decker marriage for a specie of marriage that gives the man the right to contract statutory and customary marriages to several wives. This is a misconception. Double-decker marriage simply means the contraction or celebration of marriage by the same couple first under customary law then subsequently under the Act or it allows only the same man to marry the same woman customarily and statutorily. This only allows the same couple the benefits of enjoying both systems of marriage.

In conclusion, polygamy itself is not a crime, rather it becomes a crime, when a man takes another wife when there is a subsisting marriage, under the Marriage Act, without proper desolation of the previous marriage in accordance to the instant law guiding the Marriage Act.

Spouses are encouraged to be more monogamous oriented, considering the prevailing circumstances of our present environment, high cost of commodities and quality of living. Moreso, our mental health is very important, social balance occasioned with management of larger family, with it’s intending challenges. Globally, polygamy is gradually becoming out of fashion due to serious financial challenges and as people’s purchasing power is been reduced, it’s necessary that individuals try as much as possible to have a small family unit for their good, the good of their offspring and the society at large.

•Uwaoma Christabel Chikelum is an undergraduate of Delta State University.