Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

POPULATION-SOUTHERN AFRICA: Society Reconsiders Polygamy

James Hall

MBABANE, Mar 31 2003 (IPS) - Polygamy is an age-old African custom that is being reconsidered throughout the traditional and largely impoverished nations of the southern Africa, but current times of poor economies and social uncertainties have kept the practice of multiple-wives a reality for millions of largely rural women.

"The war made us appreciate polygamy, because there was a need to re-populate the countryside," Maria Gume, a Mozambican, told IPS on Monday.

Gume, the mother of three young school-age children, sells fruits at the LaVumisa border post with Swaziland. She is the second wife of her second husband. Her first husband was killed in political infighting that followed Mozambique’s two decade-long civil war.

Her explanation for polygamy’s appeal is consistent with what sociologists know, that the need for multiple wives grows from a society’s desire to increase its population.

Mozambique was until recently the world’s poorest nation. In highly developed South Africa across the border, polygamy is not needed as a means of procreation. During the apartheid era, polygamous marriages if not outright banned in all areas by the minority white government with its European values, were at least not legally sanctioned by the state. This was a compromise with the powerful Zulu ethnic group on the Natal coast of the Indian Ocean.

"The more wives a Zulu man had, the more prestigious and powerful he was. No one was allowed to have more wives than the king," Zola Ndaba, a writer from Durban, South Africa, told IPS.

In Swaziland, where polygamy is legal up to today, the institution is being revisited in light of studies linking multiple sexual partners with the spread of AIDS.

Surveys undertaken by the ministry of health and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) have shown that multiple sex partners have increased HIV-infection rates. Nearly 40 percent of the adult population is currently HIV positive. The country’s infection rate is second only to Botswana’s as the world’s most serious. But unlike Botswana, there is no evidence that the worst of the crisis may be over.

An executive with a health NGO said, "We do not wish to attack an old Swazi custom, and polygamy is legal in Swaziland, but AIDS is spread when a polygamous husband has an affair outside the homestead, and when he returns home he infects not just one but several other people."

King Mswati defended polygamy last week, when he told a press conference, "HIV/AIDS is promoted by an individual in the manner he or she goes about with his or her life. Otherwise, polygamy is not a factor."

The king, who has nine wives and two fiancées, was defending a custom he is often asked about by the foreign press. His father, King Sobhuza, had over 110 wives according to his biographer. Mswati’s grandfather had hundreds of wives and concubines during his short life.

"A large majority of Swazi women are impoverished peasants, but even they are becoming educated, and can assess for themselves other life options than being barefoot and pregnant as the fifth wife of a polygamous husband with nothing but a grass roof over your head and an increasing likelihood of death from AIDS," Agnes Kunene, a nurse in the central town of Manzini, told IPS.

Sociologists studying the changes wrought on traditional Swazi life by modern times have documented the break-up of the extended family, several generations living together in a rural homestead called a likhaya. Polygamy functioned well in this environment at a time when the population was low, infant mortality was high, and life spans were short.

"Polygamy is all about procreation, and creating many children to provide workers for the farm and a population for the nation," said Abel Mngomezulu, a statistician with the University of Swaziland.

Today, he notes, Swaziland has one of the world’s highest birthrates, and a population density per kilometre much higher than neighbouring states like Mozambique and South Africa. But with modern mechanized farming, there is no need for dozens of children to grow up to be labourers.

"Besides, kids today may not want to stay at home. Too many children represent a financial burden instead of a financial asset. They have to be educated, clothed, fed, taken to the clinic, be given pocket money, and other expenses unheard of in earlier times," said Thandi Zwane, a health motivator in Manzini, Swaziland’s commercial capital.

With the disintegration of the traditional family homestead, the original purpose of polygamy to provide labourers has ended. But the attitude among Swazi men that they are entitled to multiple partners has translated into a lifestyle of many girlfriends, who do not become wives through traditional marriages.

"Unmarried women have few rights, and often end up maintaining children by themselves. But wives in polygamous marriages also have problems," said Zakhe Hlanze of the Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa.

"When their husbands die, their property goes to his family. In the old days, with everyone living on a farm, the widows were taken care of. Now widows are ignored, and left with nothing. They cannot even work to support themselves and their children because of the mandatory two-year mourning period," she says.

However, there is a way for Swazi women to protect themselves legally, and that is to marry in a civil or religious ceremony. A man who marries in such ceremonies cannot then turn polygamous, and take other wives.(END/IPS/AF/SA/PR/JH/MN/03)

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