Thuli Madonsela: How many wives does one need?
Men who engage in polygamy are narcissistic and women who acquiesce have a defeatist mind-set that accepts that men deserve more than women in a relationship. That is the impression I got from arguments presented in an SABC2 programme called Dare To Change, which I randomly found myself watching recently.
Shortly before, I had had a conversation about polygamy in Mauritius with a lovely couple I had just met. They advised that an old university friend I believed to be one of the most upright people I knew had taken a second wife despite the first marriage remaining in place. I doubted we were talking about the same friend until a mutual friend who has remained in touch confirmed the story. I was shocked. I was told the choice was between dissolution of the marriage or allowing the husband to take a second wife.
Could it ever be an acceptable solution for the woman to take a second husband as a solution to a troubled marriage?
It is almost 20 years since the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act was passed and 18 years since it became operational. The act recognises polygamous marriages that predate it. Polygamous marriages concluded after the act are recognised, subject to them meeting specified requirements. Key is the consent of an existing wife or wives and subdivision of the matrimonial estate before the new marriage is concluded.
The act legalised polygamy despite its overwhelming rejection by the majority of women in or raised in such relationships. Polygamy was said to constitute unfair discrimination against women in that it unfairly favoured men. It was said to diminish men’s social, economic and emotional responsibilities in a family, among others, and place the bulk of responsibility for parenting on women.
Polygamy was further blamed for putting women and children in a toxically competitive environment, regarding meeting the approval of the husband and father, among many other ways through which it reinforces patriarchy.
The few women supporting polygamy principally wanted to guarantee the rights of women already in polygamous marriages. Some even argued, as one woman did during the Dare To Change programme, that polygamy deters men from philandering. She said under polygamy she always knows where her husband is and that this was insurance against risks such as HIV. But is it so?
That polygamy reinforces patriarchy cannot be disputed. But why it thrives and why women are its key defenders is puzzling. From the Dare To Dream arguments, I was left with the distinct impression that both men and women saw polygamy as a cultural right of men. But how can a right be one-sided under a Constitution that guarantees women and men the right to equality which, according to the court in Pretoria Municipality versus Walker entails the right to be treated with “equal concern and consideration”. The prohibition of unfair discrimination in the Constitution was further said to provide “a bulwark against invasions that impair human dignity, among others”.
Polygamy is justified on the basis of, among others, the Constitution’s section 211 which recognises customary law and related legislation. But it must be noted that the recognition specifically states that it is “subject to the Constitution”.
During drafting the act, we were persuaded to retain the right to practise polygamy in respect of existing marriages as non-recognition would have principally hurt women and children. The act had been principally prompted because customary marriages were not fully recognised and a subsequent civil marriage trumped a pre-existing customary marriage. This left women married under customary law and their children destitute.
That this was unjust and inequitable is not debatable.
What was the justification for future polygamous marriages? The argument presented then and today is cultural choice. It was argued that persons who believe in culture and customs should not be prevented from practising such, provided this harms no one. But does polygamy harm no one? What about the first wives? What if a woman entered the marriage with the expectation of a life of shared love, emotional support, parenting and mutual availability for each other physically, emotionally and socioeconomically. What happens when there’s a third and fourth person to whom the man owes these same responsibilities? Can he meet his end of the bargain with the first wife?
What about the children? Children need more that financial support from parents. They need physical support, emotional support and even availability to assist with tasks such as homework? Can a father who has various households demanding his presence fulfil such responsibilities?
Some proponents of polygamy say it relieves women from engaging in sexual relations with husbands when they don’t want to. But what about engaging in such relations when her needs coincide with the other woman’s? Does this not create the toxic competitive environment women warned against during consultations on the act and much earlier during the days of the Rural Women’s Movement and the second Women’s Charter process?
A rarely discussed problem is the burden imposed on taxpayers by polygamist state employees. Instead of the state and, ultimately, taxpayers bearing the cost of one spouse, they must fund an additional one or more. Is this just and equitable? The defence is that it’s the right of concerned state employees to engage in polygamy. But the taxpayers also have the right not to be overly burdened with the upkeep of their employees.
Section 237 requires that constitutional obligations be given priority. The financing of such obligations is clearly compromised when some state employees draw a lion’s share from the state fiscus through polygamy, among others. It is particularly questionable why an additional wife acquired while in office should be funded by the state if the concerned state functionary never saw it fit to incur such burden before he could share it with taxpayers.
Ultimately, we must ask whether life is better for women in polygamous act marriages today. To assume equal bargaining power is to be oblivious of unequal gender relations due to patriarchy. Anecdotal evidence reveals that many men don’t even ask for and others don’t care about consent. We must admit though that a dependent wife is better off in a polygamous marriage than being abandoned.
Do polygamists stop philandering? Evidence shows that they don’t. Perhaps the way forward may not be to change the law but to teach boys empathy. They need to know that women are not in this world to serve them. They are here as companions with their own physical, emotional and socioeconomic needs. They also need to know that child rearing is a full-time responsibility for women and men and, ultimately, that a better world is a more socially just one.
Twenty years later, it’s time we reviewed the act’s effect against the assumptions made about polygamy when it was passed. I’m convinced that polygamy is all about pandering to the needs of narcissistic men. The answer lies in liberating men from such narcissism and women from the belief that there is no other way.
- Madonsela is professor and law trust chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University, and founder of the ThuMa Foundation
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