Polygamous marriages breeding poverty for Kenyan women, children


In Kenya, a wife’s consent is not legally required for husbands to marry again, ...
In Kenya, a wife’s consent is not legally required for husbands to marry again, and men are often unable to adequately provide for them. Photo/REUTERS

In Summary

  • Almost 1.5 million Kenyans - or 10 percent of the married population - are in a polygamous marriage, according to latest data from the Kenya Population and Housing Census.
  • But women’s rights groups say this a gross underestimate as most of these marriages are customary and not registered.
  • Worse still, many women are unaware they are even sharing a husband as he may keep them in separate homes without informing them.

It was after 21 years of marriage and six children together that Joyce’s husband brought home his second wife, without any discussion or warning.

The 38-year-old Kenyan housewife, who married at 17 with no education or skills, had to share her home and husband with a woman almost half her age.

“I was completely dependent on him. There was no choice but to put up and shut up,” said Joyce, now 58, sitting in the office of a women’s rights charity on Nairobi’s outskirts.

“Things changed after she moved in. He stopped caring. The school fees, clothes and toys stopped. His new family was well taken care of, but my kids didn’t even finish high school.”

Unable to make ends meet, Joyce married off her daughters before they turned 18. Her sons dropped out of school to work as child farm laborers and provide for the family.

Having multiple wives is common in about a quarter of the world’s nations, predominantly conservative male-dominated communities in Africa and Muslim-majority countries where it is part of traditional or religious customs.

But campaigners say most polygamous marriages in Kenya, and other African nations, are fuelling poverty – with husbands neglecting one family over another – leaving thousands of women and children impoverished and easy prey for exploitation.

Almost 1.5 million Kenyans – or 10 percent of the married population – are in a polygamous marriage, according to latest data from the Kenya Population and Housing Census.

But women’s rights groups say this a gross underestimate as most of these marriages are customary and not registered.

Worse still, many women are unaware they are even sharing a husband as he may keep them in separate homes without informing them.

“Polygamy is the biggest contributor to poverty as most men who get into it cannot afford it – and it is the women and children who suffer most,” said Teresa Omondi-Adeitan, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya.

“Sometimes they are evicted after the new wife arrives and tensions arise. In other cases, the man has to divide his little resources further between all the families, and there is less money, less food and less everything for everyone.”

The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women says polygamy should be discouraged and outlawed because such marriages are unequal and have negative emotional and financial impacts on women and children.

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