Polygamy is an institution that has survived many centuries and despite the campaigns to do away with this practice, it is still deeply rooted in Zimbabwe.
Recently a pastor took a swiping attack at all women who were in polygamous unions as second or third wives describing them as sinners of the worst order.
“All second wives and the rest should grill in hell for they are living in sin. Why do you have to stay in a relationship which is wrong?
“Small houses are evil and they should just die.”
Somewhere in the congregation was a woman who after church service confided in a church leader that she was involved in such a relationship and that she had failed to free herself from it.
“This man bought me a house, a car and sent our children to school and university.
“Telling him to go away will invite all sorts of trouble. I am well over 40 and parting ways means loss of financial assistance and also leaving the house. Which relative can take me in at this age? I am aware that this marriage is ungodly and I just want to spend my last few years worshipping God free from his man. What should I do,” she asked.
The man, she said, had three other women adding that he now spent more time with the youngest wife who turned 30 last month.
That story reminded me of a very close family friend whose husband took a close relative as his second wife.
Every time I met her, she would complain about the lost love between herself and her husband.
“My husband spends more time with his younger wife and when it is my turn that week to be with him, she will send all sorts of messages and make phone calls resulting in him leaving me for this woman’s bedroom.”
The two women share the same home with bedroom doors that face each other.
This couple is married under Chapter 37 of the Marriages Act (now known as Chapter 5:11) which only allows a man to marry just one woman.
“You see much as I am aware of this law, I will lose more if I decide to sue this woman. I have seen women who are now wallowing in poverty because they took action against rival wives.
“I am a learned woman who has a very bright future but here I am faced with a matter which I deal with often as I represent clients in similar circumstances, but I am failing to rescue myself from that problem.”
The woman said it is very difficult to use the law especially when the polygamous marriage involves women related to each other.
Some women decide to leave matters as they are or walk out without putting up a fight.
About 10 years ago, a colleague walked out of her marriage after discovering that the twins that her sister had delivered had been sired by her husband.
“The man admitted to her family that he also loved my sister, but to me she is still the child I raised when mum died and I sent her to school and university. Now this man wants me to be part of this polygamous marriage. No ways! I walked away with my three children.”
The funny thing however is that these men do not officially divorce their first wives because it is absurd to do so given the fact the people or circle of relatives will still remain the same.
Traditionally, in Shona culture for example, a man could marry sisters with the eldest wife consenting to the new arrival.
But such marriages are not that common any more with most couples preferring the monogamous marriages that fall under Chapter 5:11 of the Marriages Act.
However, that has not stopped men from getting more women through unregistered unions.
Wealthy men for instance will pay lobola, buy the women houses, cars and then have children.
These women remain behind the scenes for years and the official widow will only know about their existence when the man dies.
But some know about the other women but will prefer not to act because they are either not aware of their rights, or they probably just don’t care.
But polygamy is not only confined to the African continent.
Malaysian legislators in the poor conservative Muslim north-eastern state of Kelantan were recently urged to marry single mothers to help care for their children, a state representative suggested.
The state’s family and health committee chairwoman Wan Ubaidah Omar said that legislators should be awarded prizes for increasing their “quota” of wives.
“What I mean by quota is adding to the number of wives,” Wan Ubaidah, a female legislator said, according to Star newspaper.
Though illegal in most countries, polygamy is practiced by a number of religious movements and tends to be tolerated in deference to religious freedom.
Polygamy is legal in Malaysia for Muslims, who account for 55% of its 28 million population.
However, Muslims tend to disagree on how to interpret their religion’s teachings on the subject.
There is also a small group of people, mostly in the US, who identify themselves as Christians and who promote and practice polygamy, claiming that the Bible allows them to do so.
They base their views on incorrect interpretations of the Bible. Their practices place this group outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.
Zimbabwe is governed by two marriage laws, namely the Marriages Act (Chapter 5:11), and the Customary Marriages Act (Chapter 5:07).
Due to the dual system of customary and general law that is used in Zimbabwe, these types of marriages have been given different status by the law with negative consequences on women’s rights.
In addition there is an Unregistered Customary Law Marriage which unlike the former two marriages is not valid at law.
Upon separation or divorce, a spouse can only get property or a share of it if he/she can prove to have purchased or contributed towards it because the Matrimonial Causes Act does not apply to this type of marriage.
The Marriages Act (Chapter 5:11) discriminates against women in the sense that it sets different age limits for marriage between females and males.
Under this legislation, a man may marry at 18 while a woman may marry at 16.
This makes the girl child more vulnerable to early marriages, early pregnancies and premature motherhood.
Furthermore, the assumption in this legislation that girls attain maturity at an earlier age than boys is patently wrong and discriminatory based on sex.
The Customary Marriages Act (Chapter 5:07) allows men to have as many wives as they want, but does not accord the same privilege to women.
Under this Act, a husband can sue for adultery but the wife cannot do the same.
In the advent of HIV/Aids, this presents special problems to women who at most times do not have the power or the authority to ask their husbands to practice safe sex even when they know that their husbands have multiple sex partners.
I have encountered at least two cases of women that have filed for divorce for various reasons who were awarded 20% share of the entire estate.
In one incident, the woman was the one that had made it possible for the couple to own their matrimonial property after they had sold two properties that were registered in the woman’s name.
“But when we finally bought a stand on which we built the house in Milton Park, my husband registered solely as owner of the property and now that is working against me as he wants to marry another woman,” said a young Harare mother with four children.
Getting a lawyer to settle such cases is very expensive, as observed by a Greendale woman who is working on a divorce following a series of beatings from her spouse.
“I got three quotations from three different lawyers and they were asking for at least $1 000 and above. That figure is just too high and given the present economic problems, most women may just lose out on divorce cases because of a lack of legal representation.”
It is imperative for Zimbabwe to harmonise all these marriages and come up with a uniform marriage that is acceptable to all.
But this is a debate that still rages on with some quarters of our society insisting that the country should maintain the customary marriages which are regarded as reflecting Zimbabwean culture.
Strange as it may sound, some women do actually support polygamy, which unfortunately is a situation brought about by women being used by men.
It is men who created this institution to satisfy their never ending selfish desire for sexual exploits with various women.
My advice to women is that polygamy is degrading and all it does is steal away your happiness and joy.
The Church too should hammer at men who are the hunters of polygamous relationships.
Men have successfully created situations where women will fight each other and polygamy comes out tops.