What is the Future of Polygyny (Polygamy) in Africa?
PER-Pioneer in peer-reviewed, open access online law publications
Affiliation:University of the Western Cape South Africa
Date published:6 November 2017
Editor Prof K Beiter
How to cite
Mwambene LM "What is the Future of Polygyny (Polygamy) in Africa?" PER / PELJ 2017(20) - DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/1727-3781/2017/v20i0a1357
The traditional practice of polygyny, whereby only a man is allowed to marry more than one wife in a customary marriage, has long been perceived to be an offender of women's rights. Recent family law reforms on the African continent show that the focus has been on promoting and protecting the rights of women as defined in international human rights law, as well as on respecting the practice of polygyny. These legislative reforms in jurisdictions such as Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa show that the approach to regulating polygyny has been either to legalise, abolish, or regulate the practice. In view of the focus in these reforms on both women's rights and respect for the practice of polygyny, this paper examines the different approaches of the selected countries to regulating the practice. In particular, this paper investigates how these countries are striking a balance between polygyny and the protection of women's rights. It will also highlight the difficulties that law reformers face in regulating the practice in such a way as to protect women's rights, as well as the gaps in the law reforms that need to be addressed.
Polygyny, Africa, Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, abolish, legalise, family law, reforms, polygamy.
Polygyny is a traditional practice whereby only a man is allowed to marry more than one spouse.1 This practice has long been perceived to be in conflict with the ideals of gender equality,2 inherently subordinates women,3 violates the dignity of women,4 increases women's risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,5 is emotionally damaging, and is economically oppressive.6 In addition, polygyny is perceived to be rooted in violations of gender and women's rights, which are protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (African Women's Protocol), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).7 These observations, which are in line with the
* Lea Mwambene. DipN, LLB (Hons) (UNIMA); LLM, LLD (UWC). Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Email: email@example.com . This work is based on the research supported in part by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF); Unique Grant No.99216, the Senate Research Funds, and the Faculty of Law, Dean’s office from the University of the Western Cape. Any opinion, finding and conclusion or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the author; the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard. I would also like to thank Faculty of Law, McGill University, Montreal, Canada for hosting my research visit abroad.
1 Emphasis added. Polygamy means the plurality of spouses. Most literature, however, refer to polygamy as plurality of wives. For that reason the term polygamy in this paper refers to polygyny. See eg similarly Obonye 2012 JASD 142-149; Bennett Customary Law 243; Mwambene 2010 AHRLJ 78-93; Luluaki "Customary Polygamy" 395-418; Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 7; Strauss 2012 Ethics 516-544; Kaganas and Murray 1991 Acta Juridica 119.
2 Banda Women Law and Human Rights 116; Valley 2010 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/the-big-question-whats-the-history-of-polygamy-and-how-serious-a-problem-is-it-in-africa-1858858.html; Gaffney-Rhys 2011(a) Women in Society 1; CEDAW Committee General Recommendation 21 on Equality in Marriage and Family Relations UN GAOR, Doc A/49/38 (1994) (General Recommendation 21) para 14. See also Lehnert 2005 SAJHR 242.
3 See eg Witte 2015 Emory LJ 1675-1746; Kaganas and Murray 1991 Acta Juridica 126, 127; Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 6; Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 12.
4 General Recommendation 21; Jeffreys Man's Dominion 1967.
5 See eg UN Women date unknown http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/625-polygamousmarriages.html?next=1678; Kuhn date unknown https://www.du.edu/ korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/africa/UniversalHumanRights.pdf; Ndashe 2011 Women's Legal Centre 7.
6 General Recommendation 21 para 14 where it was reaffirmed that "polygamous marriages contravenes a woman's right to equality with men, and can have serious emotional and financial consequences for her and her dependants …"; and Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 12.
7 Article 23(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (ICCPR) provides for equality in relation to marriage. See also art 6 of the Protocol of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in
Africa (2003) (African Women's Protocol). See discussions by eg Sraman date unknown http://www.academia.edu/3559600/polygamy_and_human_rights; Kuhn date unknown https://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/africa/UniversalHumanRights.pdf; Strauss 2012 Ethics 518; Obonye 2012 JASD 147; Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 12; Gaffney-Rhys 2011(a) Women in Society 2.
8 Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 12; Cook and Kelly 2006 http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/other-autre/poly/index.html; Human Rights Committee General Comment 28 on Equality of Rights between Men and Women CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.10 (2000) (General Comment 28) para 24 in which the Human Rights Committee responsible for the monitoring of the ICCPR confirms that polygamy should be eradicated because it is discriminatory. See also General Recommendation 21 para 21; Al Hammadi 2015 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ negative-consequences-polygamy-zainab-al-hammadi.
9 For example, South Africa ratified the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) (CEDAW) in 1995 and the African Women's Protocol in 2004; Kenya ratified CEDAW in 1984; Rwanda ratified CEDAW in 1981; Malawi in 1987; Mozambique ratified CEDAW in 1997, CRC in 1994, ICCPR in 1994, African Charter on Human and People's Rights (1981) (ACHPR) in 1989 and the African Women's Protocol in 2005. In addition, CEDAW was ratified by Senegal in 1980, Swaziland in 2004, Congo in 1980, Democratic Republic of Congo in 1986, Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia in 1985, Zimbabwe in 1991, Uganda in 1984, Namibia in 1992.
10 See for example, General Recommendation 21 para 21; art 6(c) of the African Women's Protocol; art 23(4) of the ICCPR.
11 See eg ss 2(3) (4) and 7(6) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998, that recognises polygyny while at the same time s 6 provides for the equal status and capacity of spouses in a customary marriage. Also see Mamashela and Xaba 2003 http://sds.ukzn.ac.za/files/rr59.pdf, who observe, among others, that "the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act recognises polygynous customary marriages concluded before and after the enactment of the Act".
12 The Marriage Act 14 of 2014.
13 The Family Law Statute Act 10 of 2004.
14 The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998.
comments of the international human rights monitoring bodies, lead to a call for the regulation or abolition of polygyny.8
Most African State Parties to the international women's rights instruments have embarked on family law reforms, with implications for polygyny.9 A review of these reforms shows that countries have focused on promoting and protecting the rights of women as defined in international human rights law,10 while simultaneously respecting the practice of polygyny.11 Illustrations mainly from Kenya,12 Mozambique,13 and South Africa14 reveal that polygyny is being legalised, abolished or regulated in those jurisdictions. As the reforms focus on women's rights while simultaneously respecting the practice of polygyny, this paper examines the different approaches of these countries in regulating the practice. In particular, it examines how these countries are attempting to strike a balance between polygyny and the protection of women's rights. A further aim is to explore the impact of these approaches on the future of polygyny in Africa.
2 Brief overview of polygyny in Africa
Prior to the arrival of colonists and Christianity in Africa, polygyny existed as an integral part of family law, which was based mostly on cultural beliefs.15 Traditionally, polygyny performed valuable social and cultural functions. These included the following, among others: it was a remedy to escape divorce due to infertility, because in African communities a marriage without procreation is incomplete;16 it was a solution to menopause as there was a cultural belief that some women may no longer engage in sexual activities but men will continue to do so;17 it was a legal response to address the problem of unmarried women snatching away other women's husbands due to the imbalance in the ratio of women and men;18 it was a viable solution during pregnancy and nursing because some African cultures forbid sexual relations between a husband and wife during pregnancy;19 it was a remedy to negative social associations because being single is associated with evil, and a single woman might even be accused of witchcraft;20 it was a way of taking care of a widow, as both a widow and her children would be taken
15 Nyanseor date unknown http://www.theperspective.org/polygyny.html; Modupe date unknown http://unilorin.edu.ng/publications/abdulraheemnm/LAW_AND_SOCIAL_VALUES.pdf.
16 Muthengi 1995 AJET 58. Mbiti African Religion and Philosophy 133. In the African context, it is generally observed that a marriage without procreation is incomplete. A woman is always presumed to be at fault for her lack of procreation in a marriage.
17 Baloyi 2010 Verbum et Ecclesia 3.
18 As observed by Nyanseor date unknown http://www.theperspective.org/polygyny. html, the social origins of polygyny were the imbalance between women and men, in that the ratio of women to men was 10:1. This imbalance led the social architects to look at polygyny as a solution to enable more women to marry.
19 Also see Baines, Bailey and Amani 2005 http://publications.gc.ca/collections/ Collection/SW21-132-2005E.pdf; Labeodan 2007 JCT 46.
20 Phaswana "Counselling Singles" 1.
care of by the deceased husband's brother;21 and more importantly, it was "established to address the economic issues which were centred on subsistence agriculture".22 These social functions arguably served the interests of men.23
21 Muthengi 1995 AJET 59.
22 Nyanseor date unknown http://www.theperspective.org/polygyny.html; Muthengi 1995 AJET 59.
23 See generally, Da Silva et al 2004 http://www.wlsa.org.mz/article-why-polygamy-is-unacceptable-in-family-law-in-the-light-of-human-rights/. Also see similar views expressed by Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 37.
24 See generally Da Silva et al 2004 http://www.wlsa.org.mz/article-why-polygamy-is-unacceptable-in-family-law-in-the-light-of-human-rights/. Also see similar arguments raised in the context of the 2009 and 2013 Ugandan Marriage and Relations Bill.
25 See Malawi Law Commission 2006http://www.lawcom.mw/docs/Report_on_the_
26 Mugerwa Daily Monitor 1.
27 Ssenyonjo 2011 NQHR 376.
28 Bennett Customary Law 189. Kang'ara 2012 Comp L Rev 5, Henriques 2013 Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae.
29 Obonye 2012 JASD 142-149; Bennett Customary Law 189; Herbst and Du Plessis 2008 EJCL 5.
30 Kang'ara 2012 Comp L Rev 2. Also see Henriques 2013 Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae.
In the context of this paper, it is important to point out that these social functions have not ceased with time. As observed by Da Silva, during the debate on the Family Law Statute Act in Mozambique, those who defended polygamy raised similar arguments.24 In Malawi, similar views were expressed for the rejection of section 17 of the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill of 2006, that prohibited polygyny in all marriages.25 In Uganda, Parliament has failed twice to pass the Uganda Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2009 in 2009 and 2013 respectively, due to its provisions relative to polygyny, amongst other reasons.26 In addition, the Chairperson of the Ugandan Law Reform Commission, Prof Joseph Kakooza, observed during the debate that:
polygamy as a custom will remain, not only in Uganda, but also in all African countries and even beyond. What [goes] as a mistress in Europe [is a wife in Africa]. Once the first marriage is customary, you can marry under customary law even 100 or more, provided the custom allows it.27
During the colonial period, when Christianity prevailed, polygyny was one of the reasons why customary marriages were not legally recognised.28 It was viewed as a form of slavery which had to be abolished.29 In general, Christian colonials were determined to replace it with monogamy.30 In their attempt to replace polygamy with monogamy, they gave preferential treatment to monogamous men. For example, Muthengi records that some Christian missionaries refused to accept polygamists and their families into
the church.31 In some cases, upon conversion to Christianity polygynous husbands were required to choose one customary wife with whom to contract a Christian marriage and abandon the rest, leading to "the discarded wife syndrome" on the continent.32
31 Muthengi 1995 AJET 57. Barrett Schism and Renewal in Africa 117.
32 Kang'ara 2012 Comp L Rev 16.
33 Bennett Customary Law 187, 192.
34 Muthengi 1995 AJET 55, 57.
35 See, for example, the decline in the statistics in Namibia as reported by Ovis 2005 http://www.lac.org.na/news/inthenews/pdf/polygamy.pdf; and in Malawi by Basendal 2004 Afr Sociol Rev 17. In South Africa, Bekker 1991 Acta Juridica 4 observed that "the situation in South Africa is comparable. In urban areas polygyny has to all intents and purposes disappeared". Also see Mwambene and Kruuse 2015 IJLPFL 252; Mwambene 2015 Speculum Juris 76.
36 See, for example, Fenske 2012 http://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/workingpapers/pdf/csae-wps-2012-20.pdf.
37 Anon 2015 https://www.polygamy.com/articles/89746509/polygamy-in-africa; Fenske 2012 http://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/workingpapers/pdf/csae-wps-2012-20.pdf has observed that "stretching from Senegal to Tanzania, 40% of women are in polygamous marriages".
38 Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 3-38.
39 Anon 2015 https://www.polygamy.com/articles/89746509/polygamy-in-africa. Also see Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 1.
40 Ssenyonjo 2011 NQHR 376.
41 Anon 2015 https://www.polygamy.com/articles/89746509/polygamy-in-africa.
This situation, however, did not stop the practice of polygyny. Many African countries continued with the practice and it remained permissible under the customary laws of various societies.33 In some places, it led to members forming their own independent churches. For example, Muthengi records that Isaiah Shembe, the founder of the Nazarite Baptist church in South Africa, had four wives; Josiah Oshitelu, the founder of the Aladura (the Church of the Lord) had seven wives; and Johane Marange, the founder of the African Apostolic Church in Zambia and Zimbabwe, had sixteen wives.34
In the modern context, although statistics on polygynous marriages suggests that the frequency of polygynous marriages is decreasing35 and the general opinion is that they disadvantage women and must be prohibited, polygyny still exists on the continent.36 For example, reports indicate that almost 47% of marriages in Senegal feature more than one wife.37 In Tanzania, Howland and Koenen report that a quarter of its women are involved in polygamous marriage.38 In Kenya, Akuku Danger is believed to have been married to more than 100 wives.39 Furthermore, polygyny has the support of prominent political figures on the continent. For example, Kenyan President Kibaki has two wives; King Mswati III of Swaziland has 14 wives;40 the South African President, Jacob Zuma, is married to more than 3 wives; in Sudan, President Omar Hassan al–Bashir has always maintained that polygyny is a viable option to increase the population;41 and
in 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a law that allows men to marry as many wives as they wish without their existing wife's/wives' consent.42
42 AFP 2014 http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Uhuru-assents-to-law-allowing-polygamy/1056-2297540-x731pa/index.html.
43 WLSA Uncovering the Realities 92; Ovis (n 35).
44 Ovis 2005 http://www.lac.org.na/news/inthenews/pdf/polygamy.pdf.
45 Basendal 2004 Afr Sociol Rev 17.
46 Griffiths "Gendering Culture" 111-112; Basendal 2004 Afr Sociol Rev 17.
47 Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 11, who observe that "in large cities like Dares Salam, traditional polygamy has been largely replaced by private, de facto polygamy, which is considered to be more attuned to Tanzanians' perceptions of modernity". In addition, they observe that "de facto polygamy is characterised as a relationship in which a man marries one wife and also forms extra-legal domestic and sexual unions with other women".
48 WLSA Uncovering the Realities 25.
49 See generally the discussion by Kuhn date unknown https://www.du.edu/ korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/africa/UniversalHumanRights.pdf. Also see Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 2.
50 See the Marriage Act 14 of 2014. Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 2.
51 The Malawi Marriage Divorce and Family Relations Act 5 of 2015 does not formally prohibit polygamy in the context of customary marriages. Arguably it allows the same to continue under the customary laws and practices. See generally Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 2.
Polygyny in urban African areas appears to take on different forms, such as informal marriages, or second or third marriages without the knowledge of the first wife.43 For example, the 2000 Demographic Health Survey conducted in Namibia shows that 16% of women are in informal relationships.44 In Malawi, Basendal's research found that there is a change in marriage patterns from formal to informal polygyny, which is to the advantage of one woman and simultaneously to the disadvantage of the other.45 In Botswana, the study by Griffith found that men prefer informal polygyny in order to escape the obligations of plural marriages.46 In the large cities of Tanzania, Howland and Koenen reported that traditional polygyny has been replaced to a large extent by informal polygyny.47 In addition, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) report that migrant workers contract marriages with women in the rural areas and then enter into informal unions with women in the cities.48
The continued existence of polygyny can be attributed to the fact that polygyny, as Kuhn observes, is legally permitted in many African countries, such as Chad, Gabon, Niger, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia.49 The legal recognition of polygyny on the continent has taken different forms. Some African countries such as Kenya have formally recognised polygynous marriages as valid marriages.50 Other countries such as Malawi allow polygyny under the unwritten customary laws.51 Gaffney-Rhys has observed that there are also countries such as South Africa that have opted to formalise existing customary laws but impose restrictions on the
practice.52 In addition, some countries continue to formally prohibit polygyny under civil law, but the practice remains lawful under the customary law of the country.53 In exceptional cases the practice is allowed, but a man is required to obtain the permission of his current wife if he wishes to take another wife.54
52 See eg the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 in South Africa, which recognises polygamous marriages. Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 2.
53 For example, in Malawi, polygamy is prohibited under s 17 of the Marriage Divorce and Family Relations Act 5 of 2015 for civil marriages but is allowed for customary and religious marriages. Also see the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 in South Africa, which allows for a monogamous customary marriage to be converted into a civil law marriage, but a polygynous customary marriage cannot be converted into a civil marriage (s 10(4)).
54 See the South African case of Mayelane v Ngwenyama 2013 4 SA 415 (CC).
55 Ariclet 11 of the Hague Convention on the Celebration and Recognition of Marriages (1978) mandates a contracting state to refuse to recognise the validity of a polygynous marriage. This instrument, however, does not outlaw polygamy.
56 Article 6 of the African Women's Protocol states that "monogamy is encouraged as the preferred form of marriage and that the rights of women in marriage and family, including polygamous marital relationships, are promoted and protected". In art 5 of the African Women's Protocol, however, polygyny is not listed as one of the harmful cultural practices to be eliminated.
57 See generally the discussions by Gaffney-Rhys 2011(a) Women in Society 1, 2; Cook 2011 http://www.law.utoronto.ca/utfl_file/count/documents/reprohealth/
Polygamy.pdf. See for instance art 16 of CEDAW, that just states that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and found a family [and] are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution".
58 Cook 2011 http://www.law.utoronto.ca/utfl_file/count/documents/reprohealth/ Polygamy.pdf. Also see Gaffney-Rhys 2011(a) Women in Society 1.
59 See, for example, Gaffney-Rhys 2011(a) Women in Society 1.
60 For example, art 16 of CEDAW, which just states that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and found a family [and] are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution". Also see the discussion by Obonye 2012 JASD 147.
3 Polygyny under international human rights law
As widely observed, the international human rights instruments, with the exception of the Hague Convention on the Celebration and Recognition of Marriages55 and the African Women's Protocol,56 do not expressly consider polygamy.57 However, they require States Parties to eradicate practices that may lead to discrimination.58 As noted, polygyny is a system that only allows men to have multiple wives. Most authors therefore agree that non-discriminatory provisions in these international human rights instruments can be used to address discrimination in the context of polygyny.59 International human rights instruments further contain provisions aimed at ensuring the equality of spouses before, during and after marriage.60 For
example, article 23(4) of the ICCPR, as well as article 6 of the African Women's Protocol, specifically provides for equality in relation to marriage.61
61 Article 23(4) of the ICCPR provides that States: "shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution".
62 See, for example, General Recommendation 21 para 21 and General Comment 28 para 24, as discussed by Gaffney-Rhys 2011(a) Women in Society 10.
63 General Comment 28 para 24.
64 The Human Rights Committee observed that art 3 of the ICCPR guarantees equal rights for women and men, violates a woman's right to equality in marriage, and has severe financial consequences for her and her children. See General Comment 28.
65 CEDAW Committee General Recommendation 24 on Women and Health UN GAOR, Doc A/54/38 (1999) (General Recommendation 24).
66 General Recommendation 21 paras 14, 21.
67 See, for example, art 6 of the African Women's Protocol, and the discussions by Cook and Kelly 2006 http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/other-autre/poly/index.html.
68 Emphasis added.
69 CEDAW Committee General Recommendation 29 on Economic Consequences of Marriage, Family Relations and their Dissolution UN Doc CEDAW/C/GC/29 (2013) (General Recommendation 29).
In addition, as rightly observed by Gaffney-Rhys, the General Comments by the treaty monitoring bodies endorse the elimination of polygyny because it is discriminatory.62 For example: the Human Rights Committee in General Comment 28 observes that "equality of treatment with regard to the right to marry implies that polygamy is incompatible with this principle and therefore, should be abolished".63 It has also found that polygyny violates article 3 of the ICCPR64 and has therefore urged States Parties to take legislative measures to enforce the prohibition of polygamy within their territories.65 In addition, the CEDAW Committee noted in its General Recommendation 21 that "polygynous marriages contravene a woman's right to equality with men and must therefore be prohibited".66
In countries where polygyny is still practised, international human rights instruments require States Parties to ensure that women are entitled to the same rights and benefits as they would enjoy in monogamous marriages.67 Article 6 of the African Women's Protocol states that: "monogamy is encouraged as the preferred form of marriage and that the rights of women in marriage and family, including polygamous marital relationship are promoted and protected".68 This is buttressed by the CEDAW Committee's General Recommendation 29, which makes it clear that: "with regard to women in existing polygamous marriages, States Parties should take the necessary measures to ensure the protection of their economic rights".69
In addition, international human rights law also mandates States Parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful cultural practices in order
to ensure equality in marriage.70 Further guidance at the international level can be obtained from the CEDAW Committee, which has observed that States Parties whose constitutions guarantee equal rights but permit polygynous marriages in accordance with personal or customary law violate the constitutional rights of women and breach the provisions of article 5(a) of CEDAW.71 For example, the 2010 Kenya Constitution guarantees equality between the spouses from the outset of a marriage to its dissolution.72 Several African countries, for example Tanzania,73 Malawi,74 South Africa,75 and Mozambique,76 have provisions in their constitutions that prohibit discrimination on a number of grounds, including gender.
70 Article 5(a) of CEDAW provides that "States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women".
71 General Recommendation 21 para 41.
72 Section 45(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Kenya, 2010.
73 Sections 12, 13 of the Constitution of the Republic of Tanzania, 1977.
74 Section 20 of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, 1994.
75 Section 9(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.
76 Article 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique, 2004.
77 Cook 2011 http://www.law.utoronto.ca/utfl_file/count/documents/reprohealth/ Polygamy.pdf.
78 CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations: Kenya CEDAW/C/KEN/CO/7 (2011) para 17; Hellum and Aasen Women's Human Rights.
79 CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations: Lesotho CEDAW/C/LSO/CO/1-4 (2011) para 47; Hellum and Aasen Women's Human Rights.
Related to the above point, a review of the concluding observations made concerning African states' reports buttresses the opinion of CEDAW that nothing short of immediate legislative prohibition will do.77 For instance, Hellum and Aasen report that at its 39th Session in 2007 and 48th Session in 2011 the Committee took the view that the Kenya Matrimonial Bill, which provided for the regulation of property in a polygynous customary marriage, facilitates polygyny, and therefore urged the Government to "implement measures aimed at eliminating polygamy as called for in the Committee's General Recommendation 21".78
Furthermore, Hellum and Aasen have observed that Lesotho was similarly reprimanded when it reported before the CEDAW Committee that polygamy "is an acceptable customary practice, which has safeguards against potentially negative consequences for wives and children, ie the requirement that existing spouses must be consulted and by providing separate property to each household".79 In response, the CEDAW
Committee expressed concern about the persistence of the practice and the Government's limited efforts to address the matter.80
80 CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations: Lesotho CEDAW/C/LSO/CO/1-4 (2011) para 20 and 21; Hellum and Aasen Women's Human Rights. Also see similar observations made with respect to CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations: Malawi, CEDAW/C/MW1/CO/6 (2010) para 42.
81 Byrnes and Freeman 2012 http://ssrn.com/abstract=2011655.
82 Article 45(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Kenya, 2010.
83 Byrnes and Freeman 2012 http://ssrn.com/abstract=2011655. Kenya became party to CEDAW in 1984.
84 The Marriage Act 4 of 2014, which came into force on 20 May 2014.
85 Section 6 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
In conclusion, therefore, the international human rights position is that polygyny violates the right to equality in the context of marriage and must therefore be prohibited. In countries where it is still allowed and practised, States Parties must ensure that women are entitled to the same rights and benefits they would have enjoyed in monogamous marriages.
As earlier noted, most African countries are party to the international human rights law on the protection of women's rights. The following discussion, therefore, examines how selected countries have responded to their international obligations, starting with Kenya.
4 Legal responses to polygyny and women's rights in Africa
The starting point in exploring Kenya's legal response to polygyny and the protection of women's rights is article 45(4) of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution. It provides that "Parliament may enact laws to recognise marriage, under any system, to the extent that such marriages or systems of law are consistent with the Constitution". As Byrnes and Freeman rightly observe, this provision requires the state to enact legislation that provides equality between spouses in all marriage systems.81 In addition, the Constitution provides that "parties to a marriage are entitled to equal rights at the time of the marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution".82 Article 45(3) is therefore a "direct" response to article 16(1) of CEDAW, above, that prescribes that husbands and wives have equal rights in marriage.83
In responding to both its constitutional and its international obligations, the Kenya government enacted the Marriage Act, 2014 (hereinafter called the Marriage Act).84 The Marriage Act is the main legislation that regulates Christian, civil, customary, Hindu and Islamic marriages.85 The proprietary aspects relating to marriage are, however, regulated by the Matrimonial
Property Act, 2013.86 These two pieces of legislation have provisions that speak to the recognition and regulation of polygyny in the following ways.
86 The Matrimonial Property Act 49 of 2013, which came into force on 16 January 2014.
87 Section 2 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
88 Section 3(1) of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
89 See, generally, the discussion by Mwambene and Kruuse 2015 IJLPF 237-259.
90 Section 6(3) of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
91 See s 4 as read with s 45(3)(a) of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014. S 4 provides that "a person shall not marry unless that person has attained the age of 18 years".
92 It is generally accepted that child marriages breach art 16(2) of CEDAW; art 21 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) (African Children's Charter); art 1 of the Convention on Consent to Marriage, the Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962); and art 6 of the African Women's
Firstly, in its recognition of polygyny the Kenya Marriage Act defines it as "the state or practice of a man having more than one wife simultaneously".87 This definition clearly excludes women from having more than one husband. This provision therefore violates articles 16(1) of CEDAW and article 45(3) of the Kenya Constitution, which prohibits discrimination of any kind in the context of marriage. Secondly, a marriage is defined as "the voluntary union of a man and a woman whether in a monogamous or polygynous union and registered in accordance with the Act".88 The importance of registration in the protection of women's rights cannot be overemphasised. Registration of a customary marriage can unlock doors leading to equal property rights entitlements among the polygynous wives, particularly after the death of husband. However, this provision, read together with section 44 (to be discussed later), makes the validity of a marriage depend on registration. Due to the well-known challenges that rural communities face to register marriages, such a provision may, however, lead to adverse results in the protection of women's rights, particularly in a polygynous customary marriage system.89 Thirdly, according to section 6(3), "a marriage celebrated under customary law or Islamic law is presumed to be polygamous or potentially polygamous."90 This provision treats women married under customary law and Islamic law differently from women in civil and Hindu marriages. This is a violation of article 45(3) of the Constitution.
In their totality, however, these provisions speak to the legality (the recognition) of polygyny in Kenya.
In its protection and promotion of women's (children's) rights in the context of polygyny, the Marriage Act has several provisions that can be used to address the violations. For example, the marriageable age for all marriages, including customary marriages, is now 18 years.91 Setting the marriageable age at 18 complies with international children's rights standards, and sends out a strong message that child marriages under any law are not allowed in Kenya.92 In the context of this discussion, however, we see that prescribing
Protocol, which require parties to a marriage to provide free and full consent to marriage. In addition, other human rights infringement are committed if young girls are forced to marry, including the right to education, freedom from sexual exploitation, health and life.
93 Section 4 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014 prescribes the marriageable age to be 18.
94 Gaffney-Rhys 2011(b) Women in Society 5.
95 Section 55 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
96 Section 4 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
97 Kamau date unknown http://theequalityeffect.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ CustomaryLawAndWomensRightsInKenya.pdf.
98 Section 44 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014
99 Banda 2006 JAL 76. See generally De Souza 2013 Acta Juridica 239-272 on how the non-registration of customary marriages can disadvantage women and children. Also see the discussion by Mwambene and Kruuse 2013 Acta Juridica 302; Kovacs, Ndashe and Williams 2013 Acta Juridica 278-280.
100 Section 2 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
a marriageable age is a departure from traditional customary rules that attach marriage to puberty, and other cultural practices which predispose young girls to polygynous marriages.93 As observed by Gaffney-Rhys, in the context of polygyny, "the marriageable age is pushed down for females, leading to plural wives often being very young".94
Further protection under the Kenya Marriage Act is provided under the registration provisions.95 A polygynous customary marriage, just like all other marriages recognised in the Kenya Marriage Act, can now be registered.96 The merits of registration in the protection of children and women's human rights in the context of polygyny cannot be overemphasised. It induces the parties to the marriage to meet the necessary legal requirements, ie marriageable age and consent. More importantly, the process of registration can protect women from entering into informal polygynous marriages without their knowledge.97 However, as earlier observed, "the status of a marriage" under the Kenya Marriage Act is conferred on a customary marriage only when the parties notify the Registrar of the marriage within 3 months of celebrating the marriage.98 This position may arguably lead to women's "disfranchisement" due to the fact that many women live in disadvantaged rural communities where access to registration is difficult.99
Another important provision that can be used to address women's rights violations in the context of polygyny is section 2 of the Marriage Act. It provides that "parties to a marriage have equal rights and obligations at the time of the marriage, during the marriage and at the dissolution of the marriage".100 This provision is in line with international human rights law as well as with the constitution on the topic of the equal protection of the spouses in a marriage. It guarantees the right to equality for a woman in a polygynous marriage with her husband. However, read together with the provisions of the Matrimonial Property Act, 2013 (MPA), which regulates
matrimonial property in the context of polygynous marriages,101 it seems that in a polygynous marriage a husband has more property rights than each of his wives. This argument is supported by the fact that section 8 of the MPA regulates matrimonial property in the context of polygynous marriages as follows: "where property was equally acquired by the man and his first wife before he took on the other wives, then the property is held equally by the husband and his first wife."102
101 Banda "Changing the Constitution" 255.
102 Section 8(1)(a) of the Matrimonial Property Act 49 of 2013; Banda "Changing the Constitution" 264.
103 Banda "Changing the Constitution" 264.
104 Section 8(2)(b) of the Matrimonial Property Act 49 of 2013.
105 Section 8(2) of the Matrimonial Property Act 49 of 2013.
106 The Marriage Act 4 of 2014 is silent on the matter.
Several observations made by Banda in the protection of women's rights in a polygynous marriage are relevant to this discussion.103 First, she observes that the MPA provides that "if there are multiple wives when the property is acquired, the property is to be regarded as owned by the man and his wives taking into account any contributions made by the man and each of his wives".104 Secondly, the MPA makes provision for joint ownership in the context of polygynous marriages, which is made possible where a wife in a polygynous marriage can jointly own property with the husband to the exclusion of other wives.105 Arguably, in their totality, the husband will still have more shares in the property that he owns together with each of his wives, which defeats the principle of the equal sharing of matrimonial property between a husband and wife.
Furthermore, section 2 of the Marriage Act provides for the equal rights and obligations of spouses in a marriage. In the context of polygynous marriages, it grants a wife rights equal to those of her husband in decisions that will affect her. However, this provision is without legal content, since a husband can marry subsequent wives without her consent.106 There is a need, therefore, for an enabling provision to allow a woman to give consent when the husband wishes to marry a subsequent wife/wives.
To conclude, therefore, the exploration of Kenya's legal response in the context of polygyny shows that despite its positive outward appearance of addressing women's rights violations, the Marriage Act is not comprehensive. It does not cover all aspects of marriage and divorce, particularly the proprietary consequences of polygynous marriages. Moreover, in balancing polygyny and women's rights, the Marriage Act has
recognised the traditional African way of allowing only a husband to marry as many wives as he wishes without the existing wife's consent.107
107 Section 2 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014.
108 Plan International In-depth Review 21. Art 36 provides that "men and women are equal before the law".
109 Family Law Statute Act 10 of 2004 as cited by Plan International In-depth Review 18.
110 This provision seems to be supported by arts 63 and 64 of the Family Law Statute Act 10 of 2004 which deems marriages without consent not to exist.
111 Article 16(2) of the Family Law Statute Act 10 of 2004 as cited by Plan International In-depth Review 22. This definition is similar to the definition of the English case of Hyde v Hyde 1866 LRIP & D13, in which a marriage was defined as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others".
112 Da Silva et al 2004 http://www.wlsa.org.mz/article-why-polygamy-is-unacceptable-in-family-law-in-the-light-of-human-rights/.
113 Plan International In-depth Review 22 have observed that this provision "protects woman in a society whereby patriarchy favours men to engage in polygamous relations".
114 Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations: Mozambique CCPR/C/MOZ/CO/1 (2013) para 9.
The legal response in the protection of women's rights in the context of polygyny originates from the principle of equality between men and women embedded in article 36 of the Mozambique Constitution.108 This principle of equality is also embedded in the Family Law Statute, which is the principal act that regulates religious, statutory and customary marriages in Mozambique.109 Arguably, the equality principle in marriage is safeguarded by article 53(c) of the Family Law Statute, for instance, which bans marriages which do not have the consent of the parties.110
So, how has the Family Law Statute balanced polygyny and women's rights? The starting point in attempt to answer this question is the definition of the marriage. The Family Law Statute defines a marriage as "a relationship between two persons of the opposite sex".111 This definition clearly prohibits polygamy since only two persons of the opposite sex are allowed to marry.112 Commentators have thus welcomed the Family Law Statute "as a first step to ensure equality of spouses in marriage".113 The definition of marriage therefore complies with the international approach of prohibiting polygyny to address women's rights violation. However, the fact that polygyny is not implicitly prohibited in the Family Law Statute could be problematic. This position, arguably, does not send a clear message on the status of polygyny in Mozambique. It may explain why in 2013 the Human Rights Committee was still concerned that polygyny continues to exist despite the Family Law Statute that attempts to address it.114
Apart from the definition section, several other provisions that regulate different aspects of marriage can be used to address women's rights violations in the context of polygyny. Firstly, the Family Law Statute provides that the validity of all marriages is subject to compliance with statutory requirements.115 These requirements include that parties to a marriage must both be over the age of 18 years.116 Similar observations made in the context of Kenya on the merits of setting a marriageable age at 18 apply mutatis mutandis. The Family Law Statute, therefore, complies with the international and constitutional standards on the marriageable age.117 However, this protection is threatened with a clawback provision under the Family Law Statute that allows parties who are at the age of 16 to conclude a marriage with the approval of their parents.118 As rightly observed by Plan International, the dangers inherent in this provision are compounded by the fact that this approval can be granted without providing specific reasons for allowing such marriages.119 This position, unfortunately, undermines the Family Law Statute's efforts to address harmful cultural practices such as polygyny that may lead young girls into childhood polygynous unions.120
115 Plan International In-depth Review 18.
116 Article 30(1) of the Family Law Statute 10 of 2004.
117 Both art 6 of the African Women's Protocol and art 21 of the African Children's Charter set 18 as the marriageable age.
118 Article 30(2) of the Family Law Statute 10 of 2004.
119 Plan International In-depth Review 19.
120 See, generally, the observations by Mandlate Assessing the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
121 De facto marriages in this context are marriages between a man and a woman for over a period of 1 year (12 months).
122 Plan International In-depth Review 22.
123 Da Silva et al 2004 http://www.wlsa.org.mz/article-why-polygamy-is-unacceptable-in-family-law-in-the-light-of-human-rights/.
Protection in the context of property is provided in articles 101, 102 and 103 of the Family Law Statute. In their totality, these provisions provide that spouses have equal rights relating to the administration of their assets and the disposal of spousal property. In addition, this protection is also offered to women in de facto marriages.121 Article 203(2) of the Family Law Statute extends equal protection relating to property acquired during the union to de facto marriages. Plan International has thus applauded the Family Law Statute for the wide scope of the protection it gives to women living in de facto unions.122 In the context of women found in de facto polygyny, the Family Law Statute does not offer similar protection. This is irrespective of the fact that anecdotal research shows that informal polygyny is very common in Mozambique.123 While extending legal protection to de facto marriages, the Family Law Statute should have equally provided protection
to those women found in informal polygynous marriages. Moreover, as succinctly captured by Plan International:
The advantage of recognising de facto unions are that these unions can serve as the basis for women and girls married traditionally, where such marriages are not registered and which are therefore not recognised in statutory terms.124
124 Plan International In-depth Review 22.
125 Article 6 of the African Women's Protocol.
126 Plan International In-depth Review 22.
127 Article 75 of the Family Law Statute 10 of 2004.
128 Plan International In-depth Review 24
129 Plan International In-depth Review 24.
130 Plan International In-depth Review 24.
This approach would have been in line with the international human rights position that requires States Parties to extend protection where polygyny is still practised.125 Moreover, by not extending protection to these informal polygynous marriages, the Family Law Statute is in violation of article 119(2) of the Mozambique Constitution, which arguably requires the state to recognise and protect marriage as the institution that secures the pursuit of family objects.126
In addition, the Family Law Statute, just like the Constitution and the Civil Registrar's Code (that regulates the formalities and processes required for marriage registration) provides that marriages are valid if they are registered.127 This position is similar to that taken in the Marriage Act in Kenya. In Mozambique, just as in Kenya, registration is one of the requirements for a valid marriage under the Family Law Statute. Similar arguments on the merits and demerits of registration as a requirement in the protection of women's rights discussed above in the context of Kenya apply equally in this context. Related to this point, the process for the registration of statutory and religious marriages under the Family Law Statute is different from that in customary marriages. For statutory and religious marriages, the Family Law Statute requires that these marriages are preceded by a preliminary process128 which provides the opportunity for the Registrar to inquire if the marriage requirements have been met or not.129 In contrast, for customary marriages, where polygynous unions are mostly to be found, the parties are not subjected to the same preliminary inquiry. This position unfortunately predisposes women find themselves involved in informal polygynous marriages without their knowledge. Moreover, the 2016 Plan International's study found that the registration infrastructure is generally poor.130
In conclusion, therefore, although the Family Law Statute adopts a prohibitionist approach in balancing polygyny and women's rights, the exploration reveals that more needs to be done to protect women's rights in
the context of polygyny. For example, there is a need to improve the registration infrastructure. In addition, the continued existence of informal polygyny 10 years after the Family Law Statute came into effect can only be an indication that the practice is nowhere close to dying in Mozambique. Moreover, as Howland and Koenen rightly observe, "although polygyny is invariably discriminatory, one must consider the context in which it takes place before denying its recognition".131
131 Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 37.
132 This was after a very long history of the non-recognition of customary marriages due to lobolo and polygyny.
133 Section 6 of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 provides that "a wife in a customary marriage has, on the basis of equality with her husband and subject to the matrimonial property system governing the marriage, full status and capacity to acquire assets and to dispose of them, to enter into contracts and to litigate, in addition to any rights and powers that she might have at customary law".
134 Section 3(1)(a)(i) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 provides that "for a customary marriage entered into after the commencement of this Act to be valid, the prospective spouses must both be above the age of 18 years". Also see Herbst and Du Plessis 2008 EJCL 6.
135 Section 4 of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998. Also see Herbst and Du Plessis 2008 EJCL 9.
136 Section 7 of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 as read with Gumede v President of South Africa 2009 3 SA 152 (CC).
137 Ndashe 2011 Women Legal Centre 5, 6.
138 Section 2(3) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 provides that "if a person is a spouse in more than one customary marriage, all valid customary marriages entered into before the commencement of this Act are for all purposes recognised as marriages".
139 Section 2(4) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 provides that "if a person is a spouse in more than one customary marriage, all such marriages
4.3 South Africa
The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, 1998 (RCMA) in South Africa was enacted to validate customary marriages. These include polygynous marriages.132 The RCMA is different from traditional customary laws, however, in certain respects. It contains provisions for the equal status of spouses in a customary marriage,133 minimum age requirements for customary marriages,134 registration rules,135 and rules applicable in community of property matrimonial regimes.136 These changes are generally seen as milestones in the protection of women's rights in the context of customary marriages.137
For the purposes of this discussion, however, the RCMA has provisions that are specifically aimed at the recognition and regulation of polygynous marriages. For example, section 2(3) of the RCMA recognises all polygynous marriages concluded before the commencement of the Act.138 In a similar fashion, section 2(4) provides for the recognition of polygamous marriages concluded after the commencement of the Act.139 In order to
entered into after the commencement of this Act, which comply with the provisions of this Act, are for all purposes recognised as marriages".
140 Section 7(1) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998.
141 See generally discussions by Bennett Customary Law 251 who traces this rule "from antiquated common-law doctrine, which treated women in the same way as children".
142 Section 7(6) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998.
143 Olivier et al Indigenous Law 40. The matrimonial property system under customary law was neither in nor out of community of property. It was governed by patriarchal principles which essentially left the distribution and control of property to males.
144 Bennett Customary Law 247.
145 Olivier et al Indigenous Law 40.
146 Olivier et al Indigenous Law 40.
protect women's matrimonial property in a polygynous marriage, the RCMA leaves the regulation of property for marriages recognised under section 2(3) to customary laws, which are patriarchal in nature.140 This is problematic, as customary law grants the power to control property to a husband, and views a wife as a perpetual minor under the guardianship of the husband.141
For polygynous marriages recognised under section 2(4), the matrimonial property is regulated by section 7(6) of the RCMA as follows:
A husband in a customary marriage who wishes to enter into a further customary marriage with another woman after the commencement of this Act must make an application to the court to approve a written contract which will regulate the future matrimonial property system of his marriages.142
Two main observations, however, can be made with regard to section 7(6) of the RCMA. First, this provision accords with the traditional customs, where the matrimonial property system was governed according to customary rules. According to these rules, a husband had the responsibility of distributing property between his wives in a polygynous marriage in such a way that each wife and her children established a separate autonomous house with its own assets allocated by the husband.143
Secondly, as Bennett has rightly observed, section 7(6) does not prescribe the terms of the contract. It has been suggested, however, that the intention seems to have been to establish an "out of community of property" matrimonial system.144 This suggestion arguably resonates with the customary rules, where each wife establishes a separate autonomous house for her children and herself, with its own assets allocated by the husband.145 Moreover, the "out of community of property" quality of the customary rules can be inferred from the fact that once assets have been allocated to a particular house, a husband is not permitted to move assets from one house to another without consulting the wife of the particular house and the eldest son.146 Where assets have been so moved, an inter-house
debt is created between the houses.147 Moreover, in terms of the customary rules of inheritance, children inherit property from their mothers' houses.148
147 Bennett Customary Law 258; Olivier et al Indigenous Law 54.
148 Olivier et al Indigenous Law 149; Bennett Customary Law 259.
149 Section 4 of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998. Registration is, however, not a requirement for the validity of a customary marriage under the Act. See eg s 4(9) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998. Also see similar observations by Amien 2013 Acta Juridica 372.
150 See generally Mwambene and Kruuse 2013 Acta Juridica 300, 301; Mwambene and Kruuse 2015 IJLPF 243.
151 See the discussion in Mayelane v Ngwenyama 2013 4 SA 415 (CC).
152 Mwambene and Kruuse 2015 IJLPF 252.
153 Section 10(4) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998.
154 See, for example, s 3 of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014 and ss 2(3) and 2(4) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998. See the similar observation about the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 made by Higgins et al as cited in Mwambene 2015 Speculum Juris 72.
As in the situation in Kenya and Mozambique (discussed above), the RCMA in South Africa contains provisions for the registration of customary marriages that can protect women from informal polygyny.149 However, many women married under customary laws are unable to register their marriages for various reasons.150 The effect of non-registration is that they are denied the right to inherit. This causes stark inequalities, particularly in polygynous marriages.151 Moreover, registration does not address the fact that many women in South Africa are married in customary law to a man who is already married in terms of civil law without their knowledge.152 In addition, the RCMA gives primacy to civil marriages over polygynous marriages, which results in many women being deprived of the potential protection offered by the RCMA.153
In conclusion, therefore, in balancing polygyny and the protection of women's rights, the RCMA tilts more towards the protection of polygyny as it was practised in the traditional system.
5 Analysis of legal responses
5.1 Reform or recognition of polygyny?
This exploration of the selected law reforms suggests that they seem to endorse polygyny as practised under traditional customary rules in the following ways. First, the provisions that recognise the practice only allow men to have more than one wife, and not vice versa. This reflects the age-old tradition of polygyny as practiced in most African countries.154 Secondly, in regulating the matrimonial property of the polygynous marriages, these laws champion traditional patriarchal attitudes that leave the control and
distribution of property to the husband.155 In South Africa, for example, the RCMA provides that the matrimonial property system for polygynous marriages concluded before the Act to continue to be governed by customary laws.156 In Mozambique the Family Law Statute is silent on this topic. It does not make any provision for the regulation of the property of women living in polygynous unions, including polygynous unions concluded before the inception of the Family Law Statute. One can therefore assume that customary patriarchal rules regulate matrimonial property in the context of informal polygynous marriages (including those that pre-date the Family Law Statute).
155 See for example, s 7 of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998.
156 See s 7(1) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998. According to customary rules regulating matrimonial property, the control of family, house or personal property is vested in the husband. Also see Mwambene and Van Nierkerk 2009 Speculum Juris 94, 95. This position was not changed by Gumede v President of South Africa 2009 3 SA 152 (CC), which affected only the matrimonial property system of monogamous marriages concluded before the Act.
157 Section 6 of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998; s 3(2) of the Marriage Act 4 of 2014; and art 36 of the Family Law Statute Act 10 of 2004.
158 See for example, in South Africa, s 11(3) of the Black Administration Act 38 of 1927.
159 Mayelane v Ngwenyama 2013 4 SA 415 (CC) para 61.
Thirdly, all of the laws under discussion recognise the equal status of the parties in polygynous marriages.157 This is seen as a departure from the past where, according to the official customary rules, a wife in a customary marriage was a perpetual minor under the protection of her husband.158 These laws therefore address the inequality between a husband and a wife in decision making that left the wife without legal capacity. However, in the context of polygyny, both the RCMA and the Kenya Marriage Act do not require the approval of the first wife when a husband wants to marry a subsequent wife. This is similar to the traditional rules as they were described by expert witnesses in the South African case of Mayelane v Ngwenyama:159
(a) although not the general practice any longer, VaTsonga men have a choice whether to enter into further customary marriages, (b) when VaTsonga men decide to do so they must inform their first wife of their intention, (c) it is expected of the first wife to agree and assist in the ensuing process leading to a further marriage, (d) if she does so, harmony is promoted between all concerned, (e) if she refuses consent, attempts are made to persuade her otherwise, (f) if that is unsuccessful, the respective families are called to play a role in resolving the problem, (g) this resolution process may result in divorce, and finally, (h) if the first wife is not informed of the impending marriage, the second union will not be recognised, but children of the second union will not be prejudiced by this as they will still be regarded as legitimate children.
Fourthly, these laws seem to comply with CEDAW's suggestion that states should register all marriages in order to ensure compliance with the
Convention and establish equality between the partners, a minimum age for marriage, the prohibition of bigamy and polygamy, and the protection of the rights of children.160 Despite the fact that the legislation contains provisions pertaining to registration, it remains one of the obstacles against the protection of women in the context of polygyny. For example, in South Africa, despite the provision requiring registration, most customary marriages are not registered.161 Of course, registration under the RCMA does not validate a customary marriage.162 Arguably, the RCMA adopts the traditional views that the registration of a customary marriage is not important since the conclusion of a customary marriage involves many people that would attest to the validity of the same.163 In the context of Mozambique, where most people marry according to customary law, evidence shows that few of these marriages are registered.164
160 Article 16 of CEDAW.
161 See, eg, Ndashe 2011 Women Legal Centre 12; Mwambene and Kruuse 2013 Acta Juridica 300.
162 Section 4(9) of the RCMA.
163 Herbst and Du Plessis 2008 EJCL 9.
164 See, generally, the observations made by Plan International In-depth Review.
165 Apart from the three countries under study, the failed attempts of Malawi and Uganda to pass prohibitionist legislation would seem to attest to this fact.
166 South Africa Law Reform Commission 1998 http://www.justice.gov.za/salrc/ reports/r_prj90_cstm_1998aug.pdf 87. Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 32 cautions that "prohibiting polygyny could have the unwanted effect of encouraging informal de facto polygamous relationships that provide no legal protection to women and children".
I therefore, ask if in their attempts to balance polygyny and women's rights the selected countries are reforming or recognising the existing practices. Whereas this paper does not attempt to answer that question, the outcomes of the different approaches adopted by Kenya and South Africa in particular would seem to be obvious: they are simply recognising polygyny as practised under the traditional customary rules.
5.2 Prohibit, regulate or legalise?
An examination of the law reforms in Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa seem to suggest that law reform that explicitly outlaws polygamy is unlikely to be supported in many African countries.165 The process of drafting the RCMA, the Kenya Marriage Act and the Family Law Statute bears testimony to the challenges of adopting the prohibitionist approach to polygyny in Africa. In South Africa, for example, the Law Commission reasoned that the pressure that leads women into polygynous marriages cannot be legally controlled. Adopting the prohibitionist approach would consequently lead to more informal unions that would leave many women not legally protected.166 In Mozambique the approach is not clear, since the word polygyny is not
expressly used in the Family Law Statute.167 In this light, perhaps, law reform should instead of prohibiting the practice adopt a regulatory approach which is preceded by other measures that focus on advancing the socio-economic factors that predispose women to polygyny. Such other measures would include addressing women's lack of education and empowering them economically, among others.168
167 This is to be contrasted with Rwanda, which expressly prohibited polygamy on the grounds that discrimination is not allowed in its Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda, 2003, which was adopted on April 23, 2003 and approved by referendum on May 26, 2003.
168 Howland and Koenen 2014 Social Justice 32.
169 See generally Ovis 2005 http://www.lac.org.na/news/inthenews/pdf/polygamy.pdf 1 on predictions made by Vision 2030 in Namibia.
5.3 Challenges to reforming polygyny in Africa
The exploration of the law reforms in the selected countries has revealed the difficulties inherent in attempting to strike a balance between polygyny and women's rights through legalising polygyny, prohibiting it, or regulating it, chief of which is the sharp growth in the practice of informal polygyny on the African continent.169 The prevalence of informal polygyny makes it difficult to assess the impact of the different legislative approaches on advancing the rights of women. One can therefore ask if the proliferation of informal polygynous unions indicates that the law reform scrutinised here does not reflect social reality, and if people are deliberately avoiding it. Whereas this question would be the subject of research on another day, existing research informs us that most men and women are ignorant of the new laws and their protective nature. As widely observed, it is therefore important that such reforms are accompanied by education and awareness campaigns.
This paper has explored the different approaches taken by three African countries to advancing the rights of women in the context of polygynous customary marriages. The exploration has shown that whether countries legalise, abolish or regulate the practice, the reality is the following: what the law says is not what people do; the provisions pertaining to equality between spouses allow for inequality; polygyny is transforming into unofficial relationships which leave most women without legal protection; and law reform is heavily influenced by customary laws that continue to disadvantage women in these marriages. These observations lead to the conclusion that whether countries legalise, abolish or regulate polygyny, ultimately the essence of polygyny in Africa is not going to change. It is therefore recommended that in order to protect women against the
violations of their rights that come with polygyny, the law reform should be accompanied by education and awareness campaigns and by practical policy and enforcement mechanisms.
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List of Abbreviations
African Charter on Human and People's Rights
Afr Sociol Rev
African Sociological Review
African Human Rights Law Journal
African Journal of Evangelical Theology
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
Electronic Journal of Comparative Law
Emory Law Journal
Comp L Rev
Comparative Law Review
International Convention on Civil and Political Rights
International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family
Journal of African Law
Journal of African Studies and Development
Journal of Constructive Theology
Matrimonial Property Act
Nat'l J Const L
National Journal of Constitutional Law
Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights
Recognition of Customary Marriages Act
South African Journal on Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Wash & Lee L Rev
Washington and Lee Law Review
Women and Law in Southern Africa