The Contribution of Polygamy to Women's Oppression and Impoverishment: An Argument for its Prohibition

Posted: 7 Jan 2005  

Date Written: July 23, 2004


There is a growing movement gaining momentum to contest the legality and legitimacy in a health and human rights context of widely accepted social, customary, traditional and religious practices - a problem complicated by the apparent division among native women on the very important question of the place of custom and religion today. Polygamy is important to study in even in countries which disallow it. It presents complex issues of multiculturalism and the issue appears frequently in contexts of immigration. Although civil law has banned polygamy in many nations, customary law still allows it. In many countries with multiple legal systems, the customary law on polygamy allows a man to take multiple wives and it prohibits a current wife from objecting to her husband's marriage to a new woman. This practice treats women as inferior members of their families and as inferior in status to men. Polygamy also has a detrimental effect on children because when a man has more than one wife, he often has a large number of children in a short period of time. Conflicts often erupt among the families because several rivalrous wives and children are competing for resources. Although polygamy itself is not a prohibited practice under international human rights law, allowing it to exist legally permits it to violate fundamental rights including rights to dignity, equality, health, and equal protection under the law. It also perpetuates women's already lower social and economic status by forcing women to share already scarce resources with co- wives and their children. In its complex role in divorce and inheritance law, for instance, polygamy negatively impacts a women's health, including mental health, sexual and reproductive health and her death from AIDS.

Keywords: Law and religion, Polygamy, AIDS, intestate succession, polygamy law, customary law, harmful cultural practices, bride price, poverty, widows and AIDS, widow inheritance, human rights, international law, comparative law, anthropolgy, law reform, health and human rights

JEL Classification: J78,K19,K33,K49,N40,N47,I118,I30,J70,J71,K39

Suggested Citation

von Struensee, Susan Vanessa, The Contribution of Polygamy to Women's Oppression and Impoverishment: An Argument for its Prohibition (July 23, 2004). Available at SSRN: or

Susan Vanessa Von Struensee (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

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