Related Stories By Lahja Nashuuta Published: 20130211
Polygamy in the era of HIV/AIDS


Recently, there were calls for the civil recognition of polygamous marriages in Namibia.

The Chief of the Ombandja Traditional Authority in northern Namibia, Mathias Walaula, was quoted in the media calling for the legalisation of the age-old practice.

Chief Walaula believes that this might be the solution to societal evils currently haunting the Namibian nation, such as passion killing, women and child abuse as well baby dumping.

I am not for or against polygamy. After all, God-fearing men like Abraham, Jacob, David and others practised polygamy.

African leaders like President Jacob Zuma have four wives while Swaziland's King Mswati III, according to the last count, has 13 wives.

My grandfather was a polygamist too. He had three wives. He managed and disciplined them well and loved them all until his last day on earth. That is partly why I believe there is nothing wrong with a man having more than one wife, as long he is able to support and protect them.

Polygamy is a cultural practice that has been deeply rooted in the African tradition for ages, in which a man is married to more than one partner.

Although today many, in Namibia and across the continent, view this form of marriage from Westernised point of view (Western culture and religion have outlawed polygamy), proponents argue that – polygamy is better than having numerous mistresses and sowing wild oats.

But my concern today is, will this work in a country with a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS like Namibia?

I also agree with opponents of polygamy who say the practice does not have a place in this HIV/AIDS era and does not resonate with gender equality, as women in such marriages don't have access to sufficient financial resources, face greater health risks and have difficulty inheriting property in case their husbands pass on.

Critics have also argued that children from polygamous unions at times do not get equal education opportunities as the preferred wife manipulates such households not to mention other conflicts.

Although polygamous marriages are not new in Namibia and the world over, people will still raise an eyebrow when they hear of this, especially today when the HIV/AIDS pandemic is still among the world’s deadliest illnesses.

Opponents of polygamy go as far as alleging that if a man has been allowed to take more wives ‑ what will stop him from seeking more even after he has three or four? It only shows that such a man cannot be satisfied.

In most Southern Africa countries, polygamy is one of the socio-cultural issues and practices feared to be the main vehicle of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Recently, the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) Committee on HIV/AIDS identified polygamy as one of the major contributing factors to the spread of the pandemic.

The chairperson, Thabitha Khumalo, was quoted by the media saying that there was need to harmonise such traditional and cultural practices as a way of preventing the further spread of the disease.

Khumalo, who is also a Member of Zimbabwean parliament, also said it was cardinal for harmonisation to be done considering that the practice was legal in some SADC member countries.

In Namibia, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Bill is currently under consideration by the Law Reform and Development Commission.

Rachel Coomer of the Gender Research and Advocacy Project of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) said the Bill would improve some processes under customary marriages, rather than doing away with such marriages.

In accordance with this Bill, customary marriages would have full legal recognition, and those married under customary law would receive marriage certificates from customary law marriage officers.

Marriage certificates would assist those so married to access benefits like medical aid and pensions of their spouses.

Minimum requirements for customary marriages stipulate that both the man and woman must be 18 years or older to marry.

Those under the age of 18 would have to get permission from their parents and government.

South Africa is one of 28 African states to have ratified the African Union's protocol on women's rights in 2003, calling among other things for the “elimination of harmful practices”, polygamy among them.

Though still permissible under South African law, polygamy is nowadays frowned upon.