I am really, really interested in finding out people's thoughts on this because I'm confused.
Before I came here I didn't know that many of Zambia's ethnic groups are traditionally polygamous and that its a practice still very common today. It's perfectly legal here, in fact when I was discussing marriage with a local lady yesterday she couldn't believe that in the U.K. it wasn't legal.
On the one hand I am absolutely committed in my work life and my personal ethics to preserving and respecting culture and tradition as a way of empowering a sense of identity in people. I think that self identity is particularly important when material wealth and poverty is high - people might not have much, but they have a confidence in themselves, a feeling of foundation and pride in who they are, and that of course is inherently linked with the traditional culture that one comes from.
But there are several problems with polygamy here. Firstly, men can have several wives, but women can't have several husbands, so needless to say equality suffers. This is an explicit gender inequality, which ultimately affects the ability to empower and in turn has subsequent consequences in terms of poverty.
I met these women the other day at a community meeting on gender empowerment and land rights.
They were amazing. They were intelligent, kind, bold and charismatic and each had something to say about the positive development of their community. But many of them hadn't been 'allowed' by their husbands to voice their opinions at home, in public or in the presence of any members of the traditional leadership, (e.g. chiefs). Why? Because they are women.
One woman I talked to was a widow. Her right to speak her mind about what happened to her assets, her children, her life on her husbands death was taken away from her by her late husband's family and she was at their mercy in terms of how to survive. This strong, funny, courageous woman felt that her dignity was stripped and her future uncertain by virtue of the fact that she was born female.
But when I talked to her about being a Zambian she was proud. She wanted to welcome me to the 'real Africa' as she called it. She wanted me to share her experiences of her beautiful country and culture. Which is polygamous and explicitly gender biased. So what to do?
The second problem is that HIV and Aids is such a huge contributor to poverty issues in Sub Saharan Africa, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and transmission rates are significantly attributable to high numbers of sexual partners. So polygamy, for all its cultural weight, can be dangerous.
The first thing I learned in university when I was studying International Development was don't always trust statistics. I've never really paid a huge amount of attention to that until coming here, but I see why my lecturer was so keen on this lesson now. Currently Zambian HIV/Aids rate stands at around 16%, but we know that because those 16% were tested. Most of these women hadn't been tested. They don't know their status. For that reason I suspect that the real statistics are much higher.
Same as gender based violence. You might not be able to see it in the picture, but several of these women had suspicious looking bruises or marks on their faces or arms. One of the women told me that she fell off a step. Her friend told me she was beaten by her husband. By my reckoning the story tells me that she's too embarrassed to report it or she's in denial. Or maybe she thinks its her husband's right to beat her, as many women do. One of the others even told me that it was an expression of love.
Obviously polygamy and gender inequality aren't perfectly synonomous, but I have started to believe that they have a profound effect on each other and that it is very rare you would witness polygamy without the subordination or oppression of women.
I do, however, question whether or not its my place to mention these issues in the context of my job here and what I'm doing, which is ultimately a poverty reduction role. Am I in a position to challenge cultural heritage to satisfy my inevitable westerncentricism? Can I legitimately and morally attempt to influence deep-set behavioural patterns that are not in my realm of experience, or necessarily my understanding?
I can't quite figure it out in my head.
So, polygamy. Discuss.