Africa, Africa: Women from P♂lls to P♀lls, Development & Aid, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Population, Poverty & SDGs, Projects, Regional Categories, Special Report, TerraViva Europe, TerraViva United Nations, Women in Politics


Polygamy Throttles Women in Senegal

A group of women in rural West Africa participate in a traditional ceremony to celebrate a polygamist marriage. Credit: Fatuma Camara/IPS

DAKAR, Sep 12 2012 (IPS) - Fatou (40), Awa (32) and Aissatou Gaye (24) sit in a meditative mood on the tiled floor outside their matrimonial home in Keur Massar, a township in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

“These are my three wives and soon I’ll take a fourth to comply with Islamic law,” brags Ousmane Gaye (50), a businessman who has commercial interests in this West African nation and also in neighbouring Mali and the Gambia.

“As you can see, they love one another and live in harmony and peace like three sisters,” he says. But peace and harmony have a strange meaning in Ousmane Gaye’s vocabulary.

“Last night, Fatou and Awa beat Aissatou repeatedly and launched a litany of insults at her,” a family source tells IPS on the condition of anonymity.

“They accuse her of bewitching their husband to make him love her too much. In fact, as you came in, he was busy reprimanding them. Honestly speaking, since Ousmane brought in Aissatou three years ago, his home has not known peace and harmony.”

The women are prohibited to speak to strangers, including neighbours, women’s rights activists or marriage counsellors about their matrimonial problems. They also do not have the right to complain unnecessarily as long as they have “everything”, which includes food, clothes and sex.

“This is the way of life in Senegal,” says Adama Kouyate, an internet café owner in the middle-class suburb of Golf Sud. Two years ago, Kouyate “inherited” the wife and six children of his late brother. He has just had a baby with his late brother’s wife, bringing the number of children under his care to 14.

“This has nothing to do with Islam, but it’s our culture. And no woman has the right to oppose this because she will be harshly cursed for the rest of her life,” he says in Wolof, Dakar’s widely-spoken language.

Aminata* a Dakar woman who secretly counsels and advises wives in polygamist marriages, says: “Polygamy is a form of modern slavery, believe me it’s not easy as it sounds. Women involved in this form of marriage have no voice and no channels to complain.”

Rokhaya*, a 23-year-old university graduate who earlier this year was forced to marry a 48-year-old rich man, agrees: “Polygamy is hell and a pack of lies.”

“Look at me, I am young and supposed to be doing things most girls my age are doing. I had dreams and aspirations to own a small company and travel the continent. I’m trapped and feel I’m going crazy because this illiterate rich man won’t let me fulfil my dreams,” she says, sobbing.

Daya* says she wants to further her education but is afraid that her husband will not allow it. She stopped going to school in Grade 7, at the age of 15, when she was given in marriage to her cousin, a Muslim cleric. Now she is 30 and has seven children.

Aminata, a divorcee who was involved in an 18-year polygamist marriage, says that polygamy violates the principle of equality, promotes gender disparity and compromises women’s progress in society. “And it’s getting worse in Senegal,” she says.

“In virtually every sector of life here in Senegal – in issues of inheritance rights, involvement in business, and access to land and education – women still lag behind, despite our constitution asserting equality between men and women.”

According to the Global Gender Gap Index produced by the World Economic Forum since 2006, Senegal ranks 102nd out of 134 countries. The index measures the position of women relative to men in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival.

A “2010 USAID-Senegal Gender Assessment” report, published in April 2012, also points to continued gender disparities in many areas in this country.

“It is widely noted that implementation of the various international and national laws on gender equality and women’s rights is weak and that the government lacks an adequate plan to enact its policies,” the USAID report says.

According to the report, 39 percent of girls in Senegal aged 20 to 24 have been married by the age of 18, while the country ranks 27th out of 68 countries surveyed in terms of girls marrying before the age of 18.

Most young men interviewed at the Place de l’Independance in the Dakar city centre say they would opt for polygamy when they are ready for marriage.

Lamine Camara, 22, a student at the Cheik Anta Diop University of Dakar, says he would rather be a polygamist and “officialise all my relationships instead of taking a string of girlfriends and risking diseases such as AIDS.”

Issa Diop, a 28-year-old polygamist truck driver, says young people like him become polygamists by choice.

“It’s like fashion, you follow the trend. Besides, women outnumber men in Senegal. Polygamy is helping a lot. Almost every man in my area, young or poor, is now a polygamist. So what?”

Slightly more than half of Senegal’s 12.9 million people are women. In the 15 to 64-year age bracket there are 3.6 million women compared to 3.2 million men, according to the country’s demographic profile for 2012.

“The practice, which in the past was widespread in rural areas, has reached urban areas with alarming proportions. And abuse is on the increase, mostly in Dakar, where polygamists are becoming younger and younger,” says Fanta Niang, a social worker and gender activist from Senegal’s third-largest city of Thies.

“There are no official statistics on polygamist marriages in Senegal that I know of. They used to say one out of four marriages in urban areas and one out of three in rural areas was polygamist, but these figures are flawed to downplay the gravity of the matter,” Niang says.

She adds that sadly most wives in polygamist marriages are illiterate and unaware of women’s rights and the right to equality.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization revealed in 2010 that approximately 61 percent lack basic literacy skills.

Senegal’s gender parity law of May 2010, enacted under the Abdoulaye Wade government amid criticism from traditionalists and Muslim hardliners, has paved the way for 64 women members of parliament of a total of 150 under the newly elected government of Macky Sall. The law requires political parties to ensure that half their candidates in local and national elections are women.

“There has been no progress regarding women’s emancipation in Senegal, and polygamy continues to play a big role in that respect,” Niang says. “Women’s empowerment should start on the ground, not at the top. These 64 MPs are just the tip of the iceberg. What about the 61 percent who cannot read and write.

“We interact with these women on a daily basis, and we see things you don’t even want to hear. That’s why I said there is no progress.”

Some argue that polygamy constitutes a threat to Senegal’s constitutional principles of gender equality and the National Strategy for Gender Equality and Equity which was developed in 2005. Moussa Kalombo, a gender analyst and religious expert, tells IPS that polygamy violates the constitutional principles of gender equality in every country.

*Names changed to protect identity.


Republish | | Print |

  • jonathan

    polygamy is really hell, more than hell. i live in the city of Bamako, Maili, and i dont like what my polygamist neighbours are doing to their wives. women are toys in west africa, shame on African society

  • amina

    Nous devons nous rebeller, trop c trop. on nous traite comme les animaux, j’en ai marre. merci IPS, c’est un excellent article. Amina from Paris

  • alanis reech

    a story that enlightens about this reality, but the headline is rather inadequate.

  • Hellen Nakato A.

    am speecheless

  • Gwyneth

    And politicians in the West tiptoe around the issues of women’s rights in backward parts of the world and say nothing!

  • treza

    polygamy is evil in God Almighty ‘s eyes. for total peace in a a family there must be equality , equal access and mutual respect. where do you find these in polygamy. lets be honest

  • DebNBrooklyn

    As long as neocolonialism holds such strong sway in Africa, African men and especially women will see no real progress. This is not a matter of Islam. In non-Islamic countries the 4 wife minimum is not even present. literacy is key. Literacy will inform the Muslim men and women that not only does the Quran not advocate polygamy – it makes is darn near impossible to accomplish.

  • craigsteve

    It’s the ridiculous Muslim influence that keeps ALL of Africa behind

  • Samora Machel

    Really should leave people to their own culture if it works for them. The west should stop creating wars and genocides instead.

  • jesus is king

    Islam, like other religions, has followers who interpret its teachings and practices in different ways. Polygamy, which is the practice of having more than one spouse, is a controversial issue within Islam, and opinions on it vary among Muslims.

    Those who defend polygamy in Islam often do so based on the following arguments:

    Religious Belief: Some Muslims who support polygamy argue that it is allowed in the Quran, which is the holy scripture of Islam, and is therefore a legitimate practice for devout Muslims. They believe that it is a matter of personal choice and a way to fulfill religious obligations.

    Social and Economic Reasons: Proponents of polygamy argue that it can serve as a solution to social and economic issues. For example, in societies where women outnumber men due to war or migration, polygamy can provide a means for taking care of widows or unmarried women who may not have other means of support.

    Human Nature: Some proponents of polygamy argue that it acknowledges and accommodates human nature, which may include a desire for multiple partners. They argue that polygamy can provide a legitimate outlet for such desires, rather than leading to extramarital affairs or other forms of unethical behavior.

    Cultural and Historical Context: Some Muslims argue that polygamy has been practiced in various cultures and historical contexts, including pre-Islamic Arabia, and is therefore a legitimate cultural practice that should be respected within the bounds of Islamic teachings.

    It’s important to note, however, that while some Muslims defend polygamy, there are others who criticize or reject it as well. They may argue that it is not in line with the principles of gender equality and mutual consent, and can lead to issues such as unequal treatment of spouses or neglect of emotional and financial responsibilities.

    It’s also important to consider that laws and regulations related to polygamy vary among different countries and Muslim-majority societies. In some countries, polygamy is regulated or even prohibited, while in others it may be practiced within certain legal and social frameworks.

    In conclusion, the defense of polygamy in Islam is a complex and multifaceted issue, with varying opinions and interpretations. It’s essential to approach this topic with respect for diverse perspectives and to consider the legal and ethical implications of polygamy in different contexts.

  • Abdullah Ahmed Mohamed

    je fait ta mere, je me lave avec ta mere.


vector calculus colley