Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Serious stuff again....

Polygamy. Discuss.

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.


  1. everything you just said. That was what I think.

  2. To be honest it seems as though you have confused a number of problems. Firstly, i really like this current blog and what it discusses. I think that polygamy and gender inequality are part of the same history-based problems and idealistically its a wonderful idea that woman should be able to have multiple husbands if they so wish (just like the men). However, your concern over whether its your place or not to mention the issues within the context of your job is a pretty valid one and i would say to air on the side of caution on that one and oh god ' be professional'. However, concerning your legitimacy and morality to influence behaviour, i would say everyone has the right, you just need to be careful how and where you do it because of your job.

  3. Yeah, I agree with being cautious about it. I haven't really talked openly about my thoughts when I'm talking to individual community members because it really isn't my place to preach or to even believe that I'm right. In work, though its more of an issue because I'm designing strategies and plans that are contributing to a poverty response programme specifically aimed at rural women, and the polygamy things is a massive factor in that. I'm lucky in that the team working on this is amazing and appreciative of any contribution I want to make, but I still am not sure whether or not I can completely articulate the problem.

    Thanks for your comments, though - I really appreciate having other perspectives and advice. I'll be sure to keep you posted!

    1. Fair enough Lucy that sounds like a massive challenge and must be very strange/interesting being in a country with such archaic systems. It must be very difficult dealing with such interwoven issues although it seems you have a really good attitude and have separated what you would like to do (with other issues) from what you set out to do, so good luck to you.

  4. Here's a comment from Ed, who was having trouble posting....

    I am going through similar challenges here in Papua New Guinea. I am fully aware that I will understand little in my year here but that still makes it hard. I think the challenges come when my 'world view' is very different to many aspects of the people and communities I am working with but I always look for similarities. I think what I find hardest, is when you see or hear something that goes against my world view. In the UK you can challenge those moments, whereas here, it is harder and like you say 'who am I to challenge it'. The toughest example of this was witnessing a man beat a women in the street, it was one of the most violent things I witnessed in my life (at that time, I've seen more since then) and I was unable to do anything.

    Good luck.


  5. i also think you should err on the side of caution remember your not there for a long period of time to make a difference in that subject. trust your instincts lucy they are usually right love mummy

  6. Hard to comment on this without offending someone (please remember I love all people, women, men, animals, and all the races under the sun), and I am probably boring people reminding them we are animals on most posts.
    Anyhow, as offended as some people will be, I have to be honest, I believe that a lot of this is based on our animality (not sure if that's a word) if you look at other animals and mammals in general, they are polygamists or polygynists, they have no polictical reason or agenda behind that, it is how they naturally live. There were societies who practised Polyandry which is interesting, in India, Tibet so it's good to see it can work the other way.

    But like I said, it seems to be the natural way of life in the animal world, I really do not agree with the violence women experience, there is no excuse for that, and also the fact they have no control of their husband's estate if he dies, this is the warping effect society has on our natural state.
    In nature, lions don't beat their wives savagley, they may have a bit of rough play and occassional clip, but although the lion is the figurehead and the highest position in his pack or family, he respects his lioness and his and his families need for her. The pack would not funtion properly without her.

    Feminism had upsides, but has made it hard for guys to talk freely on this subject or voice their opinions. As painful as it is, I will try, our society and planet are half on anti depressants and other drugs because things seem wrong, I really think more of us are depressed because "society" has skewed our natural state of being so much that it's no surprise a lot of us feel life is .. somehow wrong.
    There is no depression in the animal world, there is no suicide (lemmings aside) there is no beating, though unfortunately it seems politics IS a natural way of life for animals, buth they don't have the corruption we have evolved as humans.
    Sorry, no real help there.
    I really do not think Polygamy should be outlawed or derided as in a lot of ways, it works. I also think that when people think of polygamy they are focussing on the negatives. There have to be people in that situation that are truly happy, because of that animal tendency to want polygamy, and they have other wives (or in the case of Polyandry husbands) to share the burdens of life. Think how busy mums and dads in this country are, working as well as trying to look after the children, childcare, school runs, as well as financial troubles, it really does make sense to share the burden. Parents in general in this country spend more time in work than with their kids which leads to problems with the kids feeling their world is fractured and maybe feel less-loved. Whereas in either polygamy or Polyandry there is always a parent around. People I know who have visited places with polygamy have said how 'strangely' happy the people are despite having less and being in a situation that SEEMS so wrong to us, maybe we need to look at our society and query whether it and we are wrong (aside from the violence, that IS wrong).

    To be clear I wouldn't have the energy for multiple wives so this is an opinion not based on desire, hopefully that makes it more objective.

    Love as always sis x

  7. Totally agree with the whole suicide and our society warping us thing, especially having travelled so much and seen how material wealth affects us negatively in the West because we get greedy and end up having a warped sense of happiness.

    Good points, well made, bro

    I agree, for the most part, about polygamy being an animal instinct that humans are not immune to, I just think that if a guy can have multiple wives, why not the other way around? The only other complication is the STD's and Aids, it is a factor in Africa and its an unfortunate that polygamy adds to the problem, but I have no problem with polygamy in itself. Its more the equality thing and how that plays out here. Its really distressing sometimes to see a woman completely treated like a possession.

  8. I can only imagine sis, it really is a tough situation, and you know how big my respect for women is, violence and being treated as a possesion hurts me to the core.
    I mentioned Polyandry, well worth loooking at this wiki , very interesting it was and maybe is still practised on the other side of the coin (Women with multiple husbands). I just wish that equality and choice existed in African countries.
    Aids & STDs are still as big a problem as ever, yeah. Over the years we've heard of lots of big charities spending their funds on AIDS & STD awareness, I just wonder why the message isn't getting through. Do they have anything like the shock photos you see on embarassing bodies? There's nothing like showing a guy a discharging p*nis (not in that way!) or a syphillis sufferer riddled with sores to make you think twice about having sex without a condom. Gotta be honest, the AIDS ads we had on TV as kids with the tombstones made me more safety conscious. Just checked youtube and they have it
    I wonder whether eventually polygamy will dissapear, it may just be a case of having patience, in the same way women's rights and racial equality (for the most) have only really just come into fruition in our 'society' after hundreds of years of oppression, it may just take time.
    I think if we look at the growth of our own society and take it as a model of sorts, it WILL happen, women will get more rights, other religions will be more tolerated, etc, but the struggle will have to continue for a time unfortunately.
    Maybe because in the western world we are so used to getting instant results, be it flying around the world in a fraction of the time it would take by foot or microwaving a one minute meal for tea, we are in a rush for the result and want it to happen today.
    I think this is a destination that needs to be walked to, pace by pace.
    Big hugs Sis