A LOVE AFFAIR: Former South African president Jacob Zuma is arguably Africa’s most famous polygamist
A LOOK at gender relations in Africa will quickly reveal that women are regarded as “rare goods”.
Their accumulation confers social status to a man. This leads many Africans to believe that a woman has to go through marriage and especially maternity to be complete.
It’s a notion that justifies polygamy in many African countries, in addition to political reasons for the practice, such as the alliances between peoples, domestic labour and managing sexual desires of men.
Praise of polygamy in Africa
Women in polygamous marriages can enjoy high social status. Yet, embedded in the practice are strong manifestations of gender inequality in Africa. Our continent is the one where it happens the most. In fact, we see polygamy practised in at least 25 countries.
The problem here is not polygamy itself, but the issue of polygyny. Polygyny means that a man can take several wives. This is contrary to polygamy that allows both the woman and the man to take several husbands and wives.
The issue addressed here is unrelated to what women would like to have. The concern is that inequality rises in applying such a law at the cost of women.
Gender inequality persists even though more legislation prescribes equality of all before the law.
I can recall, for instance, the Republic of Congo’s legislation. Regardless of their marital status, women remain inferior to men in marriage. This situation is happening despite a body of international and national legislation enacting gender equality.
According to article 135 of the country’s Family Code, concerning monogamy, the spouses can agree to have the man taking another wife. With polygyny, only the man has the right to have a second wife or more, up to four.
The World Bank states that there is no gender equality that should induce the threshold principles; that is firstly, equality before the law secondly, equality of opportunity and thirdly, equality of the same weighing between man and woman.
The harmful effects of polygyny on families Besides creating and maintaining inequality between women and men, polygamy prioritises women this way: according to their order of arrival in the household; according to how they can procreate, or other variables as far-fetched as they are subjective.
These women are in permanent uncertainty because they fear the arrival of a new wife in the household. They perceive themselves as goods, without accounting for the psychological consequences they may face.
They end up losing self-esteem. The multiplication of sexual partners by their husbands exposes them to sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and Aids.
Polygamous households are places of high anxiety. That anxiety also affects the development of children. Children can often face violence and may have a learning disability. When they reach adulthood, they face the rivalries inherent in inheritance.
As for polygamous men, they have a high level of all kind of solicitations. The direct consequence is that they have huge difficulties meeting the challenges of a competitive
professional milieu in urban areas. The result is they feel guilty, helpless, and ashamed in some cases.
The ideal of gender equality with family law
The harmful consequences of polygyny in society impose an end to polygamy. This prohibition is more relevant, for the reasons that polygyny was once used to justify polygamy are not relevant nowadays.
From a gender perspective, it is necessary to establish a system that would place men and women on the same ground. Polygamy exclusively accepted in the form of polygyny is not fair to women.
So it is time to give them justice by introducing a form of marital status that grants the same rights and the same duties to women and men. That decision is thus justified given the imminent equality of both genders.
The will to forbid polygamy is not asking an undue favour or something that is inaccessible. It is a matter of making congruent the laws that exist on gender equality and the practice of the relationship be- tween the sexes. This is articulating the ideal of equality that the laws of our countries advocate. It is finally time to give women the rights they deserve, because they are equal to men.
All these women are paying the costly price because they are already engaged in polygamous unions, whether it is official or not. Because men have never formalised their marital status, the law that I support aims to do justice to concubines.
These women’s needs should relate to them, so that they are able to officially assume the rights and duties of being a man’s spouse. This law will also clean up the dense landscape of illicit unions. They constitute a permanent deception of women.
The repeal of polygamy is not yet another law in favour of women, but it is something never applied because it is not accompanied by compelling aspects.
I have imagined a law against polygamy with articles that punish anyone who does not respect them. Adopting such laws in the Congo and in many African countries is a major step that will enable us to succeed in our long march towards gender equality.
Stella Mensah Sassou Nguesso is a member of the National Assembly of Congo in Brazzaville
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