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Right Now | Polygyny in Practice

Multiple Wives, Substandard Lives

March-April 2011

In TV shows like Big Love and the documentary Sister Wives, polygyny--the practice of a man marrying multiple women--looks like a pretty good deal for everyone. Sure, it may be challenging to orchestrate meals with so many kids, or to schedule a husband’s time evenly among his wives, who occasionally feel jealous of each other. And in the United States, where plural marriage is illegal, family members have to be careful about whom they share their polygynist identity with. But the wives on screen claim the benefits of their marriages outweigh the risks, particularly when it comes to parenting. If it takes a village to raise children, these polygynists argue, then they have an edge on mainstream society: There’s always a mom around to take care of the kids.

But who’s taking care of the moms?

Rose McDermott, the 2010-2011 Bessell Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and a professor of political science at Brown, has spent the last decade accumulating data and stories from across the globe bearing on this and other questions about polygyny, and has found evidence to contradict such rosy views. Her research shows the practice is often linked to higher maternal mortality, lower life expectancy, sex trafficking, and increased domestic violence. In addition, she says the phenomenon is tied to a propensity for violence between nations.

She started her research after a 2001 conversation with Moore professor of biological anthropology Richard Wrangham, who asked her to test the idea that the male control over women that exists in many countries rests on practices like polygyny. “I thought it would be easy,” she says. “But it turned out the data were almost impossible to obtain, particularly for poor regions of the globe.” In 2002, she joined the WomanStats Project, a collaboration of researchers from several American and British universities who study gender inequality. (The project database, available at http://womanstats.org, now includes nearly 70,000 data points from 172 countries for more than 260 variables related to women’s security.)

McDermott devised a five-point scale that weighs law and practice pertaining to polygyny in a given country: zero means the practice is illegal and extremely rare, 4 that it is common and legal under customary/religious law, with more than 25 percent of women in polygynous marriages. The data used to code each country come from hundreds of sources, both statistical and qualitative. Analyzing her scale against other variables in the WomanStats database, McDermott found relationships between polygyny and a wide range of outcomes, including health problems for women and children, female genital mutilation, and lower rates of education among children. Polygynists, she says, “are investing less in the children they have” than parents in monogamous relationships.

Anecdotal evidence bears out the fact that polygynist communities don’t always take care of their own, she explains. “One of the problems with polygyny is that it leaves out too many boys.” Members of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints polygynist enclaves in rural Utah and Arizona, for example, sometimes toss boys out once they reach puberty because there simply aren’t enough wives to go around. The outcasts from these largely agrarian communities often end up on the street, poor and unskilled. “They’re a high-risk group,” says McDermott, noting that young, unmarried men are more prone, statistically, to committing violent acts.

She has found that many countries with high rates of polygyny, including Afghanistan, Barbados, and Nigeria, also have large numbers of young people. This can mean many young men won’t find a spouse, and “these societies have to do something with these men,” she says. Governments may encourage them to join monasteries--or to become guns for hire, and thus contribute to an increase in interstate conflict.

McDermott says banning polygyny outright is the most efficient way for countries to address the negative consequences of the practice, but admits that doing so could drive groups into hiding. Another approach--increasing literacy among women--is important, she says, but insufficient. She notes that South Africa has taken a different tack: amending its laws to protect women in plural marriages by giving them rights to property and child custody. Such changes won’t prevent polygyny, she says, but could help a woman leave her marriage if she wants to. Her goals for her own work, which she plans to publish later this year, are modest. She hopes other researchers will use the WomanStats database to explore other issues related to women and children. And, she says, she wants to “highlight some of the more subtle sources of violence against women.”

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