Polygamy in Africa and what boring official data reveals: Where men are likely to be 'lying' about having a second wife

More men say they have one wife than women who say they have no co-wives—suggesting that women suspect, or know, that men have other wives

MANY countries produce Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). Many people have heard of them. Few read them. And they can be boring—-but they are a beauty if you dig deep into them. USAID has assembled DHS reports from 30 African countries, and it reveals a lot—especially on marriage and polygamy on the continent.

Usually, debate around polygamy is fierce in Africa—there are those who argue that men are polygamous “by nature”; Senegalese-American musician Akon is one of the staunch defenders of polygamy, saying that he can have as many wives as he “can afford to have”; at the latest count, he had five. 

South African president Jacob Zuma is another stalwart of the League of African Polygamists; Zuma’s four wives and their domestic intrigues make tabloid fodder—a fortnight ago, tempers flared when two of Zuma’s wives showed up at a television studio for the same interview. 

A few months ago in Kenya’s parliament during a debate on marriage legislation, one male Member of Parliament controversially argued that “Any time a man comes home with a woman, that would be assumed to be a second or third wife…Any lady you bring home is your wife.” 

Female MPs stormed out of the chamber in protest, but the bill formally recognising polygamy was passed into law.

Progressives say that polygamy has no place in modern African society, but in most African countries, it is permitted and recognised under customary or civil law. 

Polygamy explicitly abolished in law in just a handful of countries in Africa: Ethiopia, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and surprisingly, Tunisia—considering it is Muslim-majority, and Islam allows to can marry up to four wives.

But diving to the bottom of the data on marriages in Africa reveals some completely unexpected trends. On the surface, it seems that African men are largely monogamous—data from the latest demographic and health surveys from 30 African countries shows that the majority of married men say they have one wife, from a high of 98.9% in Madagascar to 69.5% in Guinea. 

But when married women were asked if they had any co-wives, the responses were considerably divergent from the men. 

“Polygamy hypocrisy”

In all the countries surveyed, more men said they had one wife than women who said they had no co-wives—suggesting that women suspect, or know, that the men have other wives somewhere, but the men won’t admit it. 

We call this the “polygamy hypocrisy gap” ; and the biggest gap among the countries surveyed is Swaziland, where the divergence was nearly 30 percentage points—94.1% of married Swazi men say they are monogamous, but just 66% of married women say they are not sharing their husbands, suggesting that nearly three in ten married Swazi men are “secretly polygamous”. 

Similarly big gaps are found in many West African countries, such as Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Nigeria. 

Guinea and Burkina Faso are interesting because they already have many admittedly polygamous men, so you might expect that there is no need to be secretive about having a second wife—but men still are. 

The narrowest gap is found in the Great Lakes region: Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, followed by Ethiopia, Madagascar and Malawi. In these countries, men tend to be “honestly monogamous” with the number of men saying they have one wife, and women agreeing that they are not sharing their husbands being nearly equal. 

And DR Congo is where you are likely to find “honestly polygamous” men, recording a relatively high rate of polygamy but the narrowest “hypocrisy gap” among the countries surveyed.

Living a lie: The polygamy hypocrisy gap in africa | Create Infographics

Conventional wisdom suggests that recognising and legalising polygamy is good because it will encourage polygamous men and second or third wives to come out of the shadows and enjoy legal protection. 

If this is true, and if African men are “naturally polygamous” then we should expect that the countries where polygamy is illegal should have the highest hypocrisy levels, and where it is legalised, men should not be sneaky about their second or third wives. 

But the data reveals no relationship between the legal status of polygamy and whether men are openly polygamous. 

In Guinea and Benin, for example, polygamy is illegal and men seem to be “hiding” their second or third wives, but in Swaziland, polygamy is legal—and entrenched in the country’s culture, where 45-year-old King Mswati picked his 15th wife during last year’s Reed Dance—but Swazi men top our “hypocritical polygamists” table.

Why does any of this matter? Because it means that in areas like dealing with HIV/AIDS or family planning, where data on relationships and all manner of family arrangements are the basis of policy, planners will frequently get it wrong and not achieve their objectives.


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