Polygamy continues to disempower women

Polygamy continues to disempower women

Date: August 20, 2013
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In tattered clothes, with a festering wound on her neck, Maria Daidi balances a bag of charcoal on her head and holds the hands of her three young children as she walks down a local street.

“I sell charcoal to earn a living for the children and myself. My husband has stopped supporting me and he has another wife. He regularly beats me and at one point he burnt all my clothes because I asked him about where he had been,” mourned Daidi.

Daidi comes from Steven village in the Mangochi district. She has endured a polygamous marriage for six years and is a survivor of the gender-based violence (GBV). Daidi says she has not bothered to report her case to the legal authorities because family counsellors dismiss her grievances and case as a mere ‘domestic dispute.’

Many African countries, most of which are in Southern Africa, customary laws recognise polygamy as an acceptable and legal cultural practice. This contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which states that polygamy hinders women’s rights to gender equality by disempowering women and rendering them more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

According to the 2013 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer, in most SADC countries discrimination against women and the girl child is still widely practiced and harmful cultural attitudes still proliferate. While some protections for women exist, problems of implementation remain widespread. Furthermore, the duality of many of the legal systems means that when abuses occur under customary law, there is little or no opportunity for women’s redress under statutory law.

For instance, civil law in Swaziland does not recognise polygamy, however customary law allows men to take an unlimited number of wives. King Swati III of Swaziland and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa both practice polygamy. In 2011, Tanzania rejected a United Nation Human Rights Council recommendation to ban polygamy in the country.

In 2010 when the Malawi Government planned to ban polygamy, leaders of religious communities and the Malawi Council of Churches criticised the plan warning that the ban would deny people their religious and cultural rights.

Executive Director of Zambia Association for Research and Development Priscilla Chileshe, also member of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) says polygamy remains a problem in her country.

“Polygamy is real in Zambia and all classes of people practice it, sometimes women remain silent and will not report gender-based violence to authorities due to culture practices that teach them that a woman can not challenge her husband in any way and his decisions are final.”

Lanwani Linda Hlaisi, Deputy Director of the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities in South Africa urged countries to enact and implement laws and policies to fight GBV and harmful cultural practices that impinge of women’s rights.

Jenipher Changwanda is a journalist for Radio Maria, a Media Centre of Excellence in Malawi. This article is part of Gender Link’s Opinion and Commentary Service special coverage of SADC HOS Summit in Malawi, offering fresh views on everyday news.


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