PARIS: The practice of polygamy, or multiple marriages, is illegal in most parts of the world but is still tolerated — and even legal — in dozens of countries.
The UN Human Rights Commission and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have called for a ban.
A man’s world
Polygamy is largely, but not exclusively, a man’s world.
Besides polygyny, when a man marries multiple wives, there is the rarer polyandry, when women have multiple husbands.
There is even sororal polygyny, where a man is related to several sisters, and fraternal polyandry, where the woman marries several brothers, as is an ancient tradition in Nepal.
Sub-Saharan Africa in the centre
Only 2 percent of the world’s population lives in polygamous families, and in most countries the proportion is less than 0.5 percent, according to a 2019 study by Washington’s Pew Research Center, covering 130 countries and territories.
Polygamy is illegal in most parts of the world, including Europe. But it’s legal in parts of the Middle East and Asia without being common.
It is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, where 11 percent of the population live in polygamous households, according to Pew, with countries in west and central Africa dominating.
Burkina Faso has the highest proportion (36 percent), compared to 34 percent in Mali, 30 percent in The Gambia and 29 percent in Niger.
Nigeria and Guinea have sizeable polygamous minorities (28 percent and 26 percent, respectively), although both countries have banned the practice.
Other countries where polygamy remains widespread are Guinea-Bissau (23 percent), Senegal (23 percent) and Togo (17 percent).
Two women the norm
More common among Africa’s Muslims than Christians, polygamy is also widespread among adherents of folk religions.
In Nigeria it is banned at the federal level but is still practiced in 12 northern states that apply Sharia, or Islamic law.
According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, most West African countries allow men to marry up to four wives under certain conditions, including the means to support multiple wives and families.
In practice, however, most men in polygamous relationships have two wives.
The President and the King
Former South African President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist, has four wives and at least 20 children.
The King of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Mswati III, married 15 wives, one of whom died. He has more than 25 children.
Encouraged during the war
Islam allows men to have up to four wives on the condition that they are all treated equally.
However, the Grand Imam of Cairo-based Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni institution, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, has criticized the practice as “an injustice to women and children” resulting from “a misunderstanding of the Koran and the tradition of Islam”. the Prophet (Muhammad)”.
Polygamy was historically encouraged in times of war to financially support widows and orphans.
However, the practice is limited in most Muslim countries, with Tunisia being the first Arab country to ban polygamy in 1956.
Although the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament mention several instances of plural marriages, polygamy was rejected by both religions in the Middle Ages.
In the United States, tens of thousands of the Christian fundamentalist Mormon religion still practice polygamy.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official name of the Utah Mormons, outlawed polygamy in 1890.
Its founder Joseph Smith himself had between 30 and 40 wives, one of whom was just 14, the church announced in 2014. – AFP