Polygyny – where one husband has more wives than one – may not be as bad as it is often made out to be. New research has found that the practice of sharing a husband may, in some circumstances, lead to greater health and wealth for women and their children.
Most countries around the globe ban or restrict marriages to more than one spouse at a time. And polygyny is decried by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and women’s rights organisations as discriminatory to women.
For the study, the researchers compared polygynous and monogamous households in 56 villages in northern Tanzania, where polygyny is widespread among certain ethnic groups, including the Maasai.
When comparing households within individual villages, polygynous households often had better access to food and healthier children.
Polygynous households also owned more cattle and farmed more land than monogamous households.
These findings support evolutionary anthropological accounts of marriage indicating that polygyny can be in a woman’s strategic interest when women depend on men for resources.
“If you have a choice of a guy who has 180 cows, lots of land and other wives, it might be better for you to marry him rather than a guy who has no wives, three cows and one acre,” said one of the researchers Monique Borgerhoff Mulder from University of California, Davis in the US.
The research highlight the importance of local context in studying the health implications of cultural practices, and suggest that in some settings, prohibiting polygyny could be disadvantageous to women by restricting their marriage options.
“The issue is not the number of partners,” Borgerhoff Mulder said.
“Women should be assured the autonomy to make the decisions they want,” she pointed out.
Tanzania faces a high burden of food insecurity and malnutrition. Previous research showed that nearly 60 percent of Tanzanian Maasai children experience stunting.
“Our study suggests that highly polygynous, predominantly Maasai, villages do poorly not because of polygyny, but because of vulnerability to drought, low service provision and broader socio-political disadvantages,” lead author of the study David Lawson from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine explained.