Ugandans Clash on Polygamy as Parliament Debates Ban


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KAMPALA, UGANDA – Tom Kasekende, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, says he grew up in a polygamous home in which his father had several wives.

“I grew up in a polygamous family,” he says. “My father had many wives, some of them I did not even know. I would just hear about them as a child.”

He says that his family was Protestant, but his father’s many wives would often engage in witchcraft in order to compete for their husband’s attention.

“They were always bewitching each other to get my father’s attention,” he says.

Kasekende says that, as he grew up, he decided that polygamy wasn’t a the way of life he would choose.

“Children in a polygamous marriage are not loved by their parents, especially the father, who is always moving from one family to another,” he says. “As a man, the women are always bewitching you, and you even get confused.”

He says that polygamy may have thrived in traditional societies, when the cost of living was relatively low. But he says that the high cost of living and rising inflation today make large families less sustainable. He says that more than ever, having multiple wives – all with their own children – breeds greed, selfishness and poverty in homes.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, it was cheap to look after a family because there was no school fees, no mobile phones, but these days the cost of living is high,” Kasekende says. “Many children growing up in polygamous settings may lack school fees.”

Polygamy, currently legal in Uganda, may soon face restrictions by a bill tabled in Parliament. Some Ugandans who grew up in polygamous families say it harms children and women. Others say it’s natural and encouraged by Muslim law.

Twenty-eight percent of married women in Uganda are in polygamous unions, according to the latest Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, UDHS, from 2006. This shows a slight decrease from the 32 percent recorded in the 2000-2001 UDHS. The number of women married to men with more than one other co-wife also decreased slightly from 10 percent to 7 percent.

Inflation – at 16 percent as of May 2011 – is the highest it’s been since May 1994. An April World Bank report revealed that the cost of maize in Uganda, a staple food, increased by 114 percent during the previous year.

Various legal acts validate polygamy in Uganda. But because Uganda recognizes several types of marriage – customary, civil, Christian, Muslim and Hindu – polygamy laws in Uganda apply to groups differently. In 2009, Uganda’s previous Parliament introduced the Marriage and Divorce Bill, which permits polygamy only in customary and Islamic marriages. The bill passed its first reading but was tabled until the current Parliament, which assumed office in May.

As debate over the bill has gone on, women’s rights activists say that polygamy already violates Sections 33(4) and (6) of the 1995 Ugandan Constitution, which prohibit any laws, traditions or customs that violate women’s rights or reduce their equality with men.

Constance Obonyo, a women’s rights activist, says that polygamy hurts the whole family, including children. In addition to diminishing families’ economic power and self-esteem, she says polygamy can even break families up. She says it relegates women to being men’s property, as men own them as one of their many other assets.

Jennifer Namanya, 35, an administrative assistant, says she was comfortable living in a polygamous environment as a child in western Uganda. But, like Kasekende, she says she denounced polygamy as she grew older.

“My father had three wives, each from different tribes,” she says. “As a child, I did not see anything really wrong with it.”

She says the third wife left, but their family was still large.

“The third wife, who was of Rwandese [sic] origin, left, and my dad was left with two wives,” she says. “My mother had nine children ­ – six boys and three girls ­– and the other stepmother also had nine children, most of whom are girls. She had six girls and three boys.”

She says outsiders viewed her family as cooperative, but that, in actuality, rivalry was rife.

“As we grew up, there was silent competition,” she says. “Before the outside world, we were one. [But] there were always internal rivalries and competition over which women has more beautiful or intelligent children.”

She says that when she and her siblings were older, they went to central Uganda to go to school. Here, they lived with their father, while their mothers remained in rural western Uganda. She says that this was when she learned that her father also had other concubines, which shattered her respect for him.

“He used to bring in the house different women other than the legitimate ones,” she says. “That is when I started having a low opinion of my dad.”

She says that seeing her father with other women made her sad and develop a mistrust for men.

“Seeing your father with other women can be painful,” she says. “I grew up with a lot of fear. I never used to trust men at all. I was always sympathetic of my mother for I just imagined how much pain she was going through.”

She says she has recently started overcoming her mistrust for men, thanks to her newfound faith in God.

“Even as an adult, I was too scared of men and never trusted men who crossed my path and said they wanted to marry me,” she says. “It’s only of recent that I am getting out of it. [I’m] beginning to trust because I know that it’s only God who can take charge.”

Given the challenges that she and her siblings faced in a polygamous family, she says she was certain that none of her siblings would follow in their father’s footsteps. So she says she was disappointed to learn that one of her brothers was already polygamous by age 32.

“I thought my brothers would learn their lessons from Daddy – given the problems we faced as children – and marry one wife, but one of my brothers already had a second wife at 32,” she says.

But others say that there is nothing wrong with polygamy.

Unlike Kasekende and Namanya, Abdu Karim says he is comfortable with polygamy. He says being raised in a polygamous family didn’t hurt him in any way. He says this was largely because his stepmothers didn’t live in the same locality.

“My father had four wives, but they were not staying close to each other,” Karim says. “They rarely met, so the possibility of quarreling was minimal. A polygamous marriage is OK.”

Karim says he has just one legitimate wife but that he’s told her that he will acquire another wife or wives as he can afford to.

“I have one official wife, but I have told her that I will have to acquire another wife or wives when I am ready to look after them,” he says, as his wife sits next to him on a mat and listens calmly.

Karim, who is Muslim, says that, as long as a man can be fair to all wives and provide for them equally without discrimination, the Islam religion permits having up to four wives. He says that it’s even required, adding that those who can financially provide for multiple wives but still have only one wife are not fulfilling the law of Allah.

He says that polygamy works as long as the wives tolerate each other and don’t indulge in gossip. When one woman has problems with another woman, she should tell the husband to solve it instead of causing a fight, he says.

Karim says polygamous families are even more blessed because they have more children who are endowed with different gifts. For example, he says some children are brighter than others, and while one wife may give birth to only girls, the other wife could bear sons. He says some families have bad omens, so marrying different women insures men against them.

Karim also says that men who say they have one wife are living in denial because men by nature are polygamous.

Sarah Musisi, 33, also says that men are polygamous by nature. She says that some are just more honest about it.

“Most men are, by nature, polygamous,” she says. “The only difference is that, for some, it is legitimate, and, for others, it’s not. There is nothing to do about it.”

Musisi says her father had two wives. She says she didn’t mind because there was no fighting because they lived in separate homes.

“My father had two wives, and, as a child, I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” she says. “We were living in separate houses neighboring each other. Even as children we knew that our dad had another wife, but my mother had never gone there to quarrel with her. She accepted it.”

She says she also didn’t mind because her father was able to support her and her siblings.

“Our father paid our school fees, and we are all university graduates,” she says.

She says wouldn’t mind being in a polygamous relationship as long as her husband treated her and her co-wife fairly.

“Polygamy in itself would not be bad,” she says. “What makes it bad is the men giving preferential treatment to others. Even if my husband has another wife, I would not be so hurt. What matters is that he still provides for the family necessities.”