What is Polygyny

Oct 14 '2021, 6:02 PM | By Chris
What is Polygyny

Table of Contents

Definition of Polygyny (Polygany)

Polygyny, also known as polygany, is a practice where a man has more than one wife at a time. This is a form of polygamy, which encompases any marriage with more than two partners. Polygyny is the only type of polygamy legal in the majority of Muslim-dominated nations. Polygyny is distinct from polyandry, which is when a woman has more than one spouse.

Men are known to have one or more mistresses whom they do not marry in certain nations where polygamy is banned, even in some countries where it is allowed. Mistresses do not have the same legal standing as wives, and children produced from such relationships are still regarded as illegitimate and susceptible to legal consequences.

Where Is Polygyny Practiced?

Polygyny was once tolerated in ancient Hebrew civilization, classical Chinese society, and sporadic traditional Native American, African, and Polynesian societies. It was reported to be performed in India throughout ancient times. It was widely recognized in ancient Greece until the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church came into being.

Polygyny is practiced by several Mormon groups in North America, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church).

Polygyny is now more common in Africa than everywhere else in the world.

Historical Perspective: Polygyny in Premodern Era

Monogamy and polygyny were practiced in Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia throughout the Premodern Era, which lasted from 600 BCE to 1600 BCE. Even in regions where monogamy was common, polygyny existed. During these periods, wealth had a significant influence on the development of family life. The most powerful males had numerous secondary spouses due to their wealth, a practice known as resource polygyny. As a symbol of authority and prestige, local rulers of villages generally had the most wives. Village conquerors would frequently marry the daughters of the previous rulers as a sign of conquest. With the emergence and growth of Islam in Africa and Southeast Asia, resource polygyny persisted. These children were deemed free because they were born into these families. Children born to free or slave concubines were free, although their status was lower than that of children born to spouses. The living arrangements differed per region. Each woman in Africa had her own house, as well as property and animals. The concept of the spouse owning all property developed in Europe and was not accepted in Africa. Wives lived together in isolation in many other regions of the world, under one home. The wives had their harem (also known as a prohibited section) in the house.

Polygyny in Africa


Let’s discuss polygyny in Africa. As many as a third to half of the married women in the African polygyny belt, that stretches from Senegal in the west to Tanzania in the east, are in polygynous partnerships, and polygyny is particularly prevalent in West Africa.

The influence of the slave trade on the male-to-female sex ratio, according to some researchers, is a major element in the establishment and strengthening of polygynous behaviors in African countries. In general, the higher the prevalence of polygyny in rural regions with rising populations, the longer young males wait to marry. The higher the average polygyny rate, the more gerontocracy, and social inequality are present.

Reasons and Explanations

Improving the division of work

Boserup 1970 was the first to argue that the high rate of polygyny in Sub-Saharan Africa is due to the sexual division of labor in hoe-farming and women's significant economic contribution.

Labor is often clearly divided between genders in various shifting agricultural zones where polygyny is most commonly reported. In many of these situations, older boys and men are in charge of cutting trees in preparation for new plots, erecting fences to keep wild animals out of fields, and sometimes even the initial planting of crops (along with hunting, fishing, and the raising of livestock). Wives, on the other hand, are in charge of various elements of the family's food production, processing, and distribution, as well as performing domestic tasks for the husband.

With many wives and presumably several young male offspring, an older farmer benefits from having a considerably bigger workforce inside his family. He may progressively extend his agriculture and grow more affluent thanks to the joint efforts of his young sons and young brides. A guy with a single wife receives less assistance in agriculture and is likely to receive little or no assistance in tree felling.

Women living in such a framework, according to Boserup's historical data, also welcome one or more co-wives to share the load of everyday labor with them. The second wife, on the other hand, will generally undertake the most exhausting labor, almost as if she were a servant to the first wife, and will be lower in status than the first wife. A 1930s study of the Mende in Sierra Leone determined that having a high number of wives is an agricultural benefit since having a big number of women eliminates the need for paid employees. In many rural regions, polygyny is seen as a financial benefit.

In certain situations, the second wife's economic function allows the husband to spend more time with his family.

In the majority of Sub-Saharan African civilizations, anthropologist Jack Goody's comparative research of marriage using the Ethnographic Atlas revealed a historical link between widespread shifting horticulture and polygyny. Goody, citing the work of Ester Boserup, observes that women perform the majority of the labor in parts of Africa's sparsely inhabited shifting agriculture zones. This favored polygamous marriages, in which males attempted to take control of the production of women "who are valued both as laborers and child carriers." Goody, on the other hand, points out that the relationship isn't perfect and goes on to describe more traditionally male-dominated but relatively large farming systems, such as those found in much of West Africa, particularly in the savanna region, where polygamy is desired more for the production of male offspring labor and wherein farming is valued.

White and Michael L. Burton analyze and support Goody's observations about African male farming systems, noting that "Goody (1973) speaks against the female contributions theory." He mentions Dorjahn's (1959) comparing of East and West Africa, which shows higher female agricultural contributions in East Africa and higher polygyny rates in West Africa, particularly in the West African savanna, where male agricultural contributions are notably strong. "The motives for polygyny are sexual and reproductive rather than economic and productive," according to Goody (1973 -1989), claiming that men married polygonally to maximize their fertility and establish big families with many young dependent males.

Desire for offspring

The majority of study on the causes of polygyny has been on macro-level issues. Polygyny is widespread among family groupings that share a common ancestor. Polygyny was also used as a "dynamic basis of family survival, development, stability, continuity, and prestige," particularly as a socially acceptable technique for rapidly increasing the number of adult employees and eventually increasing the workforce of resident children.

Scientific investigations have determined that the human mating system is relatively polygynous, based on both global population surveys and reproductive physiology features.

Economic burden

Scholars have suggested that in farming systems where males perform the majority of the labor, having a second wife might be a financial liability rather than an asset. To feed a second wife, the husband must either work harder himself or hire employees to help with some of the jobs. Polygyny is either non-existent or a luxury enjoyed by a small group of wealthy farmers in such areas.

One of the strongest appeals of polygyny to men in Africa is because of its economic aspect, for a man with several wives commands them to get more land, this can produce more food for his household and that can achieve a high status due to the wealth which he can command," according to a report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) secretariat. According to Esther Boserup, tribal land tenure norms still apply to most of Africa. [Needs a page] This means that members of a tribe that controls a territory have a natural right to cultivate the land for food production and, in many circumstances, cash crops. An additional woman is an economic advantage in this tenure arrangement, as it allows the family to extend its productivity.

Polygyny-practicing societies, according to economist Michèle Tertilt, are less economically stable than monogamous countries. Polygynous nations have a greater fertility rate, smaller savings reserves, and a lower GDP than monogynous ones. If polygyny were outlawed, fertility would drop by 40%, savings would grow by 70%, and GDP would rise by 170 percent. Because monogamous males may save and spend their resources because they have fewer offspring, monogamous cultures have higher economic output. Males in polygynous cultures put more money into techniques of mating with women, whereas monogamous men put more money into their families and other associated institutions.

Men gain from polygynous marriages, despite the costs, because familial relationships provide economic and social security. These guys have the links they need to compensate for other income shortfalls because of their extensive network of in-laws.


Some experts believe that a strong libido may play a role in polygyny, while others dismiss the possibility. Although such libidinal perceptions were sometimes discarded in favor of seeing polygyny as a factor of traditional life, sex drive as a factor in some Asian cultures was sometimes associated with wealthy men, and those who were adjuncts to an aristocracy, such libidinal perceptions were sometimes discarded in favor of seeing polygyny as a factor of traditional life. Polygyny, according to some interpretations, is a technique employed to fend off infidelity tendencies.

Findings of the Studies on Polygyny

According to certain studies, men who live in polygynous relationships live 12 percent longer. Polygyny may be used in situations when there is a reduced male-to-female ratio, such as when male newborns are more likely to die from infectious illnesses.

According to other studies, civilizations that practice polygyny becomes more destabilized, bloodier, more prone to invade neighbors, and more likely to collapse. This has been ascribed to the polygyny inequality factor, in which wealthy men can have several spouses, leaving more impoverished men unmarried. After adjusting for other variables, the research found that African children in polygynous homes were more likely to die young owing to less attentive dads.

Effects of Polygyny on Women

In a study of the Ngwa Igbo Clan in Nigeria, Exposito discovered five primary reasons for men to have many wives: because the Ngwa husband might have more than one wife be able to have as many children as he wishes inflate his ego and elevate his status among his peers raise his social standing in the community guarantee that enough labor is available to undertake required fieldwork and the processing of commercial oil-palm output and fulfill his sexual desires. None of the reasons mentioned are advantageous to the women; instead, they are all beneficial to the husbands. Feminists in Egypt have pushed to ban polygamy, but because it is considered a basic human right, the struggle has been unsuccessful. Women have more marriage equality and are better able to convey their views on family planning in nations where polygyny is less common.

Women in polygynous marriages face many of the same marital challenges as women in monogamous marriages; nevertheless, some issues are specific to polygyny that impair women's overall life satisfaction and have serious health consequences. Polygyny exposes women to STDs, infertility, and mental health issues. Fear of contracting AIDS or getting infected with HIV has influenced women's decisions to marry polygynous partners among the Logoli of Kenya. Polygyny is seen by some as a way for males to avoid picking random sexual partners and therefore spreading STDs into partnerships. In interviews with members of the Logoli tribe in Kenya, it was revealed that they were afraid of polygynous marriages because of what they had seen in the lives of other women in similar partnerships. Some women in polygynous partnerships have reported feelings of envy, rivalry, tensions, and psychological stress. Envy, hate, and even violent physical conflicts among co-wives and their children become the norm when some spouses fail to share affection and other resources equitably. Women are less likely to engage in polygynous marriages as a result of this. According to research, competitiveness and conflict between co-wives can escalate to an unacceptable degree, prompting women to commit suicide due to psychological suffering. According to the findings, the wife's order has an impact on life satisfaction. According to Bove and Valencia, elder wives frequently abuse their status to get healthcare benefits in nations where only one wife is eligible. Higher incidences of mental health problems such as anxiety, sadness, and paranoia have been linked to conflict amongst co-wives.

The level of jealousy and conflict among wives has been reduced by a variety of techniques. Sororal polygyny, in which the co-wives are sisters, and hut polygyny, in which each woman has her own home, and the husband visits them on a rotating basis, are examples. A defined status hierarchy among wives may also be utilized to prevent fights by clearly defining each wife's rights and responsibilities. Even though there are numerous negative features of this practice that affect women, there are also documented personal and economic benefits for women, such as sharing household and child-rearing tasks. Co-wives also provide support and company to women.


Polygynous marriages serve a significant part in preserving gender norms on the African continent. Although African women account for more than half of the continent's population, they are seen as second-class citizens compared to African males. Polygyny contributes to gender inequality by establishing a legal tie through marriage that binds women to a subservient position. Although women across the continent are responsible for a substantial percentage of agricultural output (both sustainable and cash crops), males married to these women receive the advantages and are free to divide their earnings as they see appropriate.


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