Dowry and polygamy: What do they say about gender injustice in Africa?

The recent discussions on polygamy should rekindle debates on gender justice. For me, the existence of polygamy is the literal expression of gender injustice and gender inequity in traditional African society.

Why should a man be entitled to marry more than one woman while a woman cannot do same? Beyond this question, the very idea that one man is worth two, five or even ten or more women in a marriage, is a clear and loud expression of the idea that a man is a privileged being, a sort of a feudal lord who does favor to women by designating certain women as “number one” or number two etc., in his life.

By looking at recent discussions, I have come to appreciate even more, the injustices that women face in African society, the fundamental of which is not just the practical economic disempowerment of women, but the normative acceptance of women as economically disempowered beings. Traditional African families pass their fixed properties to the men while leaving women with no inheritance. Not only does it leave women practically economically disempowered. But it also legitimizes them as economically disempowered beings, at worst, ‘goods of economic value’.

And so, the woman, having been economically disempowered in her home in which she was born, is then pressured to leave that home into marriage, sold as an economic good in return for palm wine, cows and other goodies. The woman therefore automatically enters marriage with no inheritance. Second, because the women are sold under the label of “goods sold are not returnable”, when they face problems in that marriage, the families are likely to care less, instead advising them to put up with anything. The truth is that most traditional African families just probably want to dispose of their daughters and possibly relieve themselves of economic responsibilities to their daughters, and they see marriage as an avenue to do so. Even if that is not the intention, that is what our cultural practices portray it to be.

Perhaps here’s the worst part. In most traditional African societies, it is not the duty of a woman to initiate marriage. Second because women are normatively accepted as economically disempowered beings, they have less value in marriage negotiations. In other words, economically empowered men have more power to attract the opposite sex into marriage because of their economic advantage. And yet, the economically unattractive woman, who is culturally forbidden from initiating marriage, is then emotionally tortured by her own family to find a husband and leave the home. How is she supposed to manage that? As a result, the economically and emotionally abused woman is forced to settle for anything as marriage, including putting up with polygamy, the loudest and clearest expression of gender injustice and inequity.

I know some would offer counter arguments justifying this on “culture”. But culture is not static. Cultures are products of their age and circumstances. While I understand the need to appreciate each cultural practice in the context of its age, when injustice speaks loudly and clearly, we must listen and act. As the contexts offered as justifications for cultural practices change, so too must cultural practices change. Regardless of our ideological persuasions, it is hard not to notice the inherent gender injustices in our social structure.

Nor is there any justification for this from the Christian perspective. In Mathew 19, the Lord Jesus was clear and unequivocal. Some of the practices of the Jews in the Old Testament were because the Jews were “hard hearted”, and God made laws that realistically considered their wickedness. But Jesus was clear that, that wasn’t the ideal. “In the beginning” He noted, God made one man, and one woman, and said the TWO, not the multitudes, shall cling to each other. From the Christian perspective, the Garden of Edem is the reference point for man, the standards from which man fell through sin.

Nowhere in the Garden of Eden did we see God treat women as inferior to men, nor did God create Adam in the middle of a dozen maidens. That clearly shows what God’s standard was. Whatever happened in-between the Garden of Eden and the era of Christ, is the product of fallen and unacceptable nature of man and cannot be referenced in the new Christian dispensation. Jesus made it loud and clear that the old era of hardheartedness in which women were treated unjustly must be discarded, and He put this in clear practice by His rescue of the “adulteress” whom the old system was going to stone! Hence gender injustice cannot be justified based on the Bible.


So how do we reverse this injustice?

  1. Change the inheritance system. Why should women not be entitled to properties in a home that they were born into, which their services equally, or perhaps even more, contributed to? Even more than men, women should be bequeathed the family’s inheritance.
  2. Change the dowry system. In JHS, I was shocked to discover that in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (and other dictionaries) the dowry is rather paid by the woman in marriage, particularly in India. This is a way of making women economically attractive to incentivize men to marry them. We can equally adopt this. If a woman cannot go out to initiate marriage, then they must possess something to attract people to them. Aside that, the dowry system as it stands now in many parts of Africa makes men feel that women are acquired properties, and many have made such arguments. That must change.
  3. However, the dowry system should be approached as a system of inheritance. A woman does not have to pay dowry literally. Instead, the dowry should be the inheritance that she brings into the marriage. If a woman decides not to marry, she should keep that property and enjoy her life as she wants. Marriage should be a choice for a woman, not an opportunity for families to dispose of their daughters in exchange for economic benefits. And parents should allow their daughters to live in the homes they were born in, the same way as they treat men.

I am not saying that marriage is purely an economic affair. There are so many issues that people must navigate in order to find a good partner and to succeed in marriage. But it cannot be denied that economic considerations form an important part of marriage and impose certain conditions on both genders that automatically set the stage for the nature of the relationship in the marriage. By removing the economic imbalances on which most African marriages are rooted, we create an even playing field that would allow each gender to navigate through marriage decisions without an economic disadvantage.  More importantly, we must banish the idea that, women are born to be economically disempowered beings, who must strive for the attention of the economically superior men.

Perhaps the day polygamy ceases in Africa, that day we would know that gender justice has been achieved.

The author is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the Michigan State University.
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