The persisting factors encouraging polygamy in Ghana

(By Betty Baba)


Polygamy is still widespread in sub-Saharan countries especially in the French speaking countries as compared to the former British colonies. In the case of countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin and Cameroon, the rate of polygamous marriages as compared to monogamous marriages remains constant. A good example of an English speaking country where polygamy is rather declining is Ghana. It is not proved that the evolution of polygamy is closely related to the colonial history of West African countries.As a form of marriage, polygamy has been considered to be morally wrong by Christian missionaries and from the dominant view point of Eurasian societies(Goody 1976). Even some well-educated Christianized African elites in sub-Saharan modern society.  Some people refer to polygamy as shameful and label it as “backward” or “bush” behaviour. 

Due to high infant mortality, deadly diseases and wars, population density remained very low for many centuries. African families have always desired to have many children in order to cope with prevailing dangers and calamities through multiple marriages.
In black African culture, the number of children is maximized by the system of polygamy. Polygamy is also designed to ensure no shortage of potential husbands and to maximize a woman’s chances of pregnancy. The custom of long female postpartum sexual abstinence that is believed to be able to reduce infant mortality (Caldwell and Caldwell 1987). The main features of polygamy in this culture reveals first marriage, at an early age which ensures their early exposure to pregnancy, quick remarriage of separated, divorced, or widow women. The bride-price originally took the form of tangible goods like livestock but of late it has increasingly been replaced by cash. In Africa there are different sorts of remarriages: e.g. levirate or sororal but the dominant remarriage is usually the levirate (i.e., to inherit a deceased male relatives wife, usually one of his younger or elder brother’s wife). The main goal of the cult is to have many descendants so that the family line is strengthened. The deceased ancestors are given the opportunities of rebirth within the family.Polygamy serves as a means to maintaining the endless line of births and rebirths and to strengthen the power of the family as well as the status of the old patriarch through the growth in family size and to foster the family linage.

In many African countries some relate polygamy to religious belief, prestige, cultural, social and agricultural values. Studies disproved this hypothesis because relative to other African countries polygamy, has long coexisted with a primitive system of agriculture in which women do most of the farm work. (Boserup 1970).
In other parts of African countries, men are motivated to have two or more wives and many children, because their wives and children serve as a form of cheap labour and as a means to expand their ownership of farmland cleared from communally owned land (Boserup 1985).Apart from farming,  women always have in addition many domestic chores to do (e.g., fetching water and firewood, cleaning, cooking, and nursing). In certain circumstances or situations, a woman may even encourage her husband to take in a co-wife to share her heavy workload.Since, the first wife is usually vested with the authority to assign and distribute domestic chores to her co-wives; the existence of co-wives also helps to enhance her status.In the polygamy system of sub-Saharan countries, women have much lower status than men and are especially vulnerable when they become spouseless or childless (Boserup 1970). Without the right to inherit the property of her husband, a wife in this system is motivated to maintain high fertility, hoping that at least one of the surviving children is a son on whose inheritance she can continue farming after her field or represent the family as the head of the house hold .after her husband’s death. Her greatest fear is the inability to bear children, which is not only a valid reason for her husband to divorce her but also a cause for her community to make her an out cast in the society.Since the bride price is basically given in exchange for the labour and reproductive capacity of the bride, a divorce is accompanied by the return of the bride price to the husband’s family. In a matrilineal system, the repayment can be partial, if the wife has given birth to a son who will remain with the husband. 


The co-wife or sisters as they are called are compelled to share the husband, make schedules for rooster, to cook and share the marital bed with her co-wife.
Jealousy between co-wives is a rampant problem that threatens the harmony in a polygamous family (Wilson 1962). Before the colonial era, divorces were initiated by husbands, usually on the ground that their wives were infertile or unable to bear enough sons. After the colonial administrators permitted females to initiate divorce. It became quite common for a woman to get a divorce in order to marry a man with greater wealth or higher status. What is certain is that where there is economic and social development people tend to have less wives and children. Polygamy is still rampant in spite of the increasing economic problems faced by the population in West Africa due to the globalisation and economic competitiveness. The social and cultural changes in West Africa have certainly not affected polygamy. Islam, traditional and agricultural factors seem to be the most important reasons for polygamy. 

Polygamy is also practised by non Muslims especially within the traditional idol worshippers who neither belong to the Islamic nor Christian religion Even though polygamy is often related to the need for sufficient manpower to work in farms, having many women is still considered as prestigious in traditional societies. Having many children is a synonymous to prosperity. Some people say that having many children increases the chance of being cared for in ones old age in a society where there is no social security. It is not surprising that some countries recognise polygamy and even legalize it e.g.
Mali. The fact remains clear .whether the economic and social problem in this modern era will play a major role in the evolution of polygamy or not, only time will tell.

Discreet sexual relationship with pre-marital girls is in generally tolerated, as long as it does not result in pregnancy. Separated or divorced women who are not yet remarried. Single males, many married males, especially those in monogamous polygamous unions also look for female sexual partners, mainly because of the long (traditional custom) postpartum female sexual abstinence (Caldwell, Orubuloye, and Caldwell 1991). Thus, pre-marital, extra-marital, and inter-marital sexual relationships involving multiple and overlapping partners, are an integral part of the polygamy system in sub-Saharan Africa.Polygamy is declining in some societies like in Ghana. The southern regions are increasingly adopting the plough cultivation and commercial livestock raising, as the basic economic activity. This has reduced the importance of the participation of female labourers and hence has reduced the incentive to have multiple wives (Boserup 1970;  Kuper 1985; Timaeus and Graham1989). The persistency of these values, and the decline in polygamous unions in the urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa has been accompanied by the growth of various forms of multiple and/or serial informal marriages which involve rather irregular “girl friends” and somehow regular “outside wives”.The cultural vision of polygamy also helps to maintain a very high fertility level. Polygamy is a highly significant aspect of sub-Saharan African societies. It has thus contributed to a high demographic birth rate in sub-Saharan African countries since the 1950s. The high fertility rates between 6 and 8 children to a woman and the substantial reduction of high mortality level in modern era due to medical facilities. 

Polygamy is acceptable in sub-Saharan societies, because marriage is often arranged by the groom’s and bride’s families. The bride price is paid by the groom’s family for the use of the bride’s family. A token is known as the dowry. It’s understood implicitly that the bride has the obligation to satisfy the sexual needs of both her husband. In sub-Saharan Africa, an adultery that is indiscreet or results in pregnancy is taken as an offence on the woman’s husband and his family The penalty usually involves the beating of the female and a fine on the male. When the female happens to be the wife of a person with high status such as a chief, the penalty can be as severe as death. However, since the fear of being known as impotent is much greater than the anger over the wife’s adultery, the husband may choose to be complacent or even secretly invite a trusted young man to satisfy his wife’s sexual needs between the two sexes (Boserup 1970). Many well-educated and wealthy men are not ashamed of enjoying the advantages of having several wives. It has also become rather common for  Christianized monogamous men to have one or more “outside wives” or “girl friends,” provided that they are wealthy enough to afford the luxury. Actually, many sub-Saharan African men in urban areas consider the possession of outside wives as a reflection of high status and achievement (Karanja 1994). So the spirit of polygamy still remains very strong. In the remaining part of this paper, we will attempt to gain some insights into the factors on married women’s propensities of being in polygamous unions, based on the micro data of the DHS.   

The micro data used in this paper are from the DHS (phase 1) conducted in the late1980s on women aged 15 to 49 in rural and urban regions (Ghana:1988) The survey questionnaires used were different variables to distinguish the status of monogamy and polygamy in Ghana.The selection of potentially useful socio-demographic factors to explain the polygamous tendencies is based on preference for having them “predetermined” (i.e., not affected by whether the women became polygamous or monogamous). The levels of educational attainment of women and their husbands, as well as women’s ideas about their influence on religious belief which is misinterpretation of the Coran that “Men are entitled to 4 wives» is important. The clause in the Coran which stipulates that “if only these women are treated equally” is not respected after marriage. However, we have to be careful in interpreting the estimated coefficient of this factor. Although it is highly desirable to have a household’s income and wealth included in the set of explanatory factors.The DHS does not collect data on such economic attributes. The survey does yield information on a husband’s occupation analysis focuses on the effects of socio-demographic factors. In interpreting our findings, we will assume that educational attainment is positively correlated with income and wealth with respect to the selection of observations; we first restrict our samples to currently married women, including those in the “married” and “living together” categories. This restriction results in nearly the same proportions of women in polygamy. 

The sizes of our samples range between married women. Although our statistical analysis is focused on the variations it is useful to point out some of the explanations for the differences obtained.Some of these differences are probably due to the different modes of production in the rural economy. The extensive involvement of rural women in the hoe cultivation of root crops and in trading at local markets in West African countries like Senegal and Ghana enhances the importance of female labour and hence provides a stronger incentive for males to form polygamous unions. However, in plough cultivation and livestock-raising, widely practiced in the Southern African countries like Zimbabwe, the importance of rural female labour is lowered and is a factor in making multiple wives an economic burden for potentially polygamous husbands (Boserup 1970; Moyo 1995).The prevalence of their choice for polygamy could be either religion educational background of either the women or the men. Ghanaians, who are Muslim, have tended to be polygamous minded as compared to Christians. In order to get qualitative results we have to analyse the table in order to get a concrete and comprehensive explanation. 

: The single-factor Analysis

Effects of women’s formal education
Rooted in the tradition of missionary schools, the formal education systems of most African countries introduce to children and young adults Western values, including the preference for monogamy and the recognition of women as individual human beings rather than family properties. We may thus hypothesize that women with better education are less likely to be in polygamous unions. The observed proportions of polygamy computed for four levels of education (no education, primary, secondary, and higher) in all four countries generally support this hypothesis. From no education to secondary, the proportions drop monotonically in the southern part of Ghana as compared to the North. Tendency is reduced further with an increase in a woman’s education from secondary to a higher level.2. Effects of men’s formal educationSince a man with more formal education is in general subject to be more greatly influenced by Western values and hence is more willing to be monogamous, we may hypothesize that a woman’s propensity of being in a polygamous union is a decreasing function of her husband’s level of education. However, the perceived advantages of polygamy (e.g., greater kinship network, more descendants, and the sense of achievement) can counter the imported values against polygamy. Further more, the males with higher education are more likely to be rich enough to pay for an additional bride and the cost of maintaining a larger family. We may thus further hypothesize that unlike the effect of women’s education, an increase in their husbands‘education from secondary to a higher level may result in very little reduction or even some increase in the tendency for polygamy. For the women in the urban region, as compared to the rural, we observed that polygamy declines sharply and significantly with an increase in the husbands’ education. From no education to secondary education remains the same. In short, we found that an increase in education up to secondary level for either females or males, tended to reduce the females’ propensities of being in polygamous. Educated females continued to show a strong negative effect, whereas an increase for males had no practical effect a positive effect on their polygamous tendencies 3. Effects of religionChristian authorities prohibit or discourage polygamy, whereas Islamic authorities permit it, up to a maximum of four wives in principle. Thus, we may hypothesize that Christian women are less likely to be in polygamous unions, whereas Muslim women would have an opposite tendency.It is, however, important to point out that in other regions of the world (e.g., theMiddle East and South Asia), where women are not expected to support themselves through such activities as farming, Muslim men have a rather low  tendency of forming polygamous unions, around 5% or less (Chamie 1986). Islam stipulates that a polygamous man must treat all his wives equally and has the duty to support all of them (Boserup 1970). Although a woman who has no choice but to be a higher-rank wife in a polygamous union, would probably prefer a Muslim husband so that she could avoid being treated as a servant to the first wife. An orthodox Muslim man is unlikely to take in more than one wife, unless he has the means to support more. In sub-Saharan Africa where most women are traditionally expected to support themselves to a large extent, it may be expected that Muslims would be more prone to be polygamous than Christians but not more likely than the followers of traditional religions.The culture of polygamy is so well-established in sub-Saharan Africa before the arrival of Islam. In African countries where both Christian and Muslim religions are identifiable in the survey data, we found that Muslim women were significantly and substantially more prone to be in polygamous unions than Christian women. 4. Effects of urbanization In urban as compared to rural areas, the difficulties in forming and maintaining traditional polygamous unions can be increased by housing shortages, the high cost of living, the high risk of unemployment, low wages  in the informal sector, the high cost of raising and educating children, and the high sex ratio Thus, we may hypothesize that proportions of polygamy are lower in urban areas than in rural areas .In the region studied, we found that the observed proportions of polygamy are indeed lower in urban areas than in rural areas  5. Effects of current age (young girls & Boys))Given that the different age groups among the youths are more subject to the ongoing process of modernization, we may hypothesize that the proportions of polygamy tend to be lower for more recent (younger age groups). Another reason for this hypothesized relationship is that a married woman of an older age group has a longer exposure to the risk that her husband acquires an additional wife. The observed proportions of polygamy indeed show declining trends towards younger ages between the 15–19 and 40–49 age. It is interesting to note that a substantial drop in the proportion of polygamy from the 40–49 to the 30–39 age group is observed in Ghana. 6. Effects of age at first marriageThe sub-Saharan countries are characterized by early ages at first marriage. According to our samples, the mean age at first marriage for women is 18 in Ghana. It may be hypothesized that the women who get married at excessively late ages, say beyond 29, are more likely to be from poor or problematic families so that they have a greater chance of being in polygamous unions. It may also be hypothesized that a woman who marries too early (in or even before the early teens) has more years to be at risk of seeing her husband acquiring an additional wife so that her chance of being in a polygamous union in the later part of her life is increased. The hypothesis clarifies the data of proportions polygamy with respect to the age at first marriage. For Ghana, the proportions of polygamy remain about the same (30%) from the early teens to the late twenties and then jump to 53% in the 30–41 age interval. For both Senegal and Ghana, the jump to a very high level in the thirties is statistically insignificant, because extremely few females remain single in their thirties. 7. Effects of ethnicityIn many Africa countries, where there are distinct ethnic groups with different traditions and values these indigenes are trying to be influenced by European model; their life style and the religious belief due to modernization may differ substantially. Therefore, proportions of polygamy may differ significantly among the ethnic group women.
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