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Proposed polygamy ban in Malawi

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Some of the Malawians that we interview are part of a polygamous household. One article suggests that polygamy is present among 12% of households. This week, the government proposed to make polygamy illegal

Christian and Muslim organizations, citing religious and cultural significance, have both come out against the proposed ban.

Not being active within the religious life of Malawians, I cannot comment on the religious significance of polygamy, however, I feel like the social and economic significance of polygamy have received little serious discussion in the debate over polygamy in Malawi.

In some cases, men see it as an expectation or as a conspicuous demonstration of wealth and success. While many women in polygamous households suggest that they accept the custom, I rarely hear from women that are supportive of there husband marrying and additional wife. There are serious cost to breaking up a marriage and divorce is not easy in any country. Even in very poor households decisions must be made about the division of assets and social ties may be threatened. From my observation of the people that we work with and interview, it is possible that polygamy is used as a way to avoid formal and costly matrimonial cessation through divorce. While it may sound crude, adding an additional wife is part of the marriage market in Malawi. Polygamy offers an alternative to divorce as well as an alternative to add to his asset wealth and household productivity.

Let me be clear. Polygamy doesn’t seem to be a good solution to marital discord, nor is acquiring another wife an appropriate demonstration of wealth. And I believe that many women probably do worse in polygamous relationships than they first anticipate.  However, with a high female-male ratio and a shortage of assets diversification options, wives are perceived as an item to expand the productive capacity of a household. As wealth increases among Malawians of options for diversifying assets improve, I propose that we will see a diminishing polygamy rate even in absence of a government imposed ban on the practice.

As for the predicted success of the law, this quote from the secretary general of the Muslim Association of Malawi leds me to believe that the impact of the ban will not be clear:

“I have only one wife, my dear wife… but the moment they proceed with this, I will take a second wife”

Here is Tyler Cowen on polygamy, with some read-worthy links.


Written by Niall

May 1, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Law, Malawi, politics


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Are gacaca courts still relevant?  Kenneth Roth suggests that the answer is “No.”  Roth provides several other reasons to be skeptical of Paul Kagame’s government.

One tool of repression has been the gacaca courts — informal tribunals run without trained lawyers or judges — which the government established at the community level to try alleged perpetrators of the genocide. The original impetus was understandable: Rwandan prisons were overpopulated with tens of thousands of alleged genocidaires and no prospect of the country’s regular courts trying them within any reasonable time. The gacaca courts provided a quick, if informal, way to resolve these cases. In theory, members of the community would know who had or had not been involved in the genocide, but in reality the lack of involvement by legal professionals has left the proceedings open to manipulation.
Today, 15 years after the genocide, people are still coming forward and accusing their neighbors of complicity in it, suggesting that gacaca has morphed into a forum for settling personal vendettas or silencing dissident voices. The prospect of suddenly being accused of past participation in the genocide, with little legal recourse against concocted charges, is enough to make most people keep their heads down in the political arena.
The government says it will close the gacaca courts in June. But the government has another tool of control — the crime of “genocide ideology.” Formally adopted last year, the law outlawing “genocide ideology” is written so broadly that it can encompass even the most innocuous comments. As many Rwandans have discovered, disagreeing with the government or making unpopular statements can easily be portrayed as genocide ideology, punishable by sentences of 10 to 25 years. That leaves little political space for dissent.
…Western governments, guilt-ridden at not having stopped the genocide and impressed by Rwanda’s stability and economic growth, have been all too willing to close their eyes to this repressive sleight of hand.
But Kagame’s strategy is shortsighted and dangerous. He claims to be building a society in which citizens are only Rwandans, not Tutsi or Hutu, but his repression of civil society means that avenues to forge alternative bonds among people are limited. That makes it more likely that in moments of tension Rwandans will resort to their ethnic identity, as so often happens in repressive societies.

Written by Niall

April 13, 2009 at 7:58 am

Posted in Africa, Law, Rwanda

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