side-effects of polygamy in three african societies

here’s a little data from the demographic and health surveys for three african nations where polygamy is common — benin (2006), burkina faso (2003), and nigeria (2008). these are the percentages of single (never married) men and women at different ages. as you can see, because of polygamy (which creates a shortage of women), it takes longer for men to get married (a first time).

in benin, we don’t see a majority of men (76%) being married until after age 25. the vast majority of women are married by ages 20-24:

in burkina faso, again, a majority of men (~60%) are not married until after age 25. 84% of women are married by age 24:

in nigeria, a majority of men (76%) are not married until between the ages of 30-34. 62% of women are married by the age of 24:

in all three countries, a majority of men aged 45+ (98-99%) are married, but there’s a h*ckuva long wait for so many men!

see also: solving the “polygamy problem”? and more on solving the “polygamy problem”

(note: comments do not require an email. or a marriage license.)


more on solving the “polygamy problem”


“A major trait distinguishes the African family models as a whole from their European, American and Asiatic equivalents: widespread polygyny, which is only one central element of a whole system. The numbers of men and women in any community being roughly the same, a proportion of polygamous marriages of 30 per cent or more of all unions implies the existence of peculiar demographic mechanisms. One of these is a wide age difference between husband and wife. Women marry much younger than men and on average have more years of married life: the excess of ‘female married years’ is what makes general polygamy possible. To create a demographic balance, remarriage has to be frequent. Often it is not a question of remarriage but simply of inheritance, a widow being automatically transferred as wife to the man designated by the rules of succession. This implies a certain weakness or even the non-existence of prohibitions on marriages between affines; a man can inherit wives from his brother and from his father, although naturally his own mother is excluded. This practice, which is fairly frequent in Africa, flagrantly contravenes bothe the Christian and the Muslim teaching on incest.” [The Explanation of Ideology, pg. 192]

so, i think i may have been on the right track re. solving the “polygamy problem” (i.e. that if some men hoard all the women, other men will be cheated out of a chance to get a wife/wives). the trick must be to recirculate the women as much as possible. i suggested divorce as a possible strategy. in african societies, some men just inherit wives from male family members.

perhaps other men are still left out, tho. maybe women just circulate around the “alpha male” circles. getting your hands on some captive, slave women (as suggested by greying wanderer) is probably another solution.

previously: solving the “polygamy problem”?

update 06/22: see also side-effects of polygamy in three african societies

(note: comments do not require an email. stay away from those sabine women!)

solving the “polygamy problem”?

it’s been pointed out — right here in the hbd-o-sphere! — that polygamy isn’t necessarily all that great for guys — specifically the ones that don’t manage to obtain a wife (’cause some other guys have married them all).

but i think that, at least in the muslim world in the middle ages, they may have gotten around that problem through divorce. divorce was, apparently, waaaay more common in the middle east during the medieval period than it is today. i’m thinking that such a system of, basically, continual wife (or husband depending on your pov) swapping might solve the “polygamy problem.”

here, from “Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society” [pgs. 2 & 5]:

“The pre-modern Middle East was another traditional society that had consistently high rates of divorce over long periods of time. Despite some current misgivings over the imminent disintegration of the Muslim family as a result of frequent divorces, the fact is that divorce rates were higher in Ottoman or medieval Muslim societies than they are today….

“The incidence of divorce in Mamluk society was remarkably high. The diary of the notary Shihab al-Din Ibn Tawq gives ample testimony to the pervasiveness of divorce in late fifteenth-centry Damascus, and the work of the contemporary Egyptian scholar Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sakhawi (d. 902/1497) does the same for Cairo. In his mammoth centennial biographical dictionary, containing 12,000 entries for notable men and women, al-Sakhawi recorded information on the marital history of about 500 women. This sample, the largest we have for any period of medieval Islam … shows a pattern of repeated divorces and remarriages by Mamluk women. At least a third of all the women mentioned by al-Sakhawi married more than once, with many marrying three times or more. The reason for the high rates of remarriage was mainly the frequency of divorce; according to al-Sakhawi’s records, three out of ten marriages in fifteenth-century Cairo ended in divorce.”

and on polygamous marriages [pg. 86]:

“Among the many unstable marriages in fifteenth-century Cairo, polygamous marriages stand out as particularly so. A married man would often choose to conceal a second marriage from the public eye in order to avoid trouble with his first wife. [heh. (~_^)] But when his first wife did find out, the man would often have to choose between the two. ‘Aziza bt. ‘Ali al-Zayyadi (d. 879/1475), the daughter of a Cairene scholar, married the Meccan scholar ‘Afif al-Din al-Iji when he visited Cairo. This marriage was kept secret from his first wife and paternal cousin, Habibat Allah bt. ‘Abd al-Rahman, who remained in Mecca. But when the Cairene wife accompanied her husband to Mecca, ‘Afif al-Din was forced to divorce her after pressure from the first wife. In other cases it was the second wife who gained the upper hand. Najm al-Din Ibn Hijji preferred not to consummate his marriage with his young bride and relative, Fatima bt. ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Baizi (d. 899/1494), because he had married a second and more mature woman. Al-Sakhawi tells us that his second wife ‘took hold of his heart,’ and convinced him to divorce his cousin.”

maybe, if you keep enough women circulating in the “women-you-can-marry-pool,” you can get around the problem in polygamy that some men are cheated out of getting wives. you might get stuck with a second-hand wife (or two) — and maybe you don’t get her for keeps — but maybe you do get a chance to reproduce.

or, maybe, the alpha males just kept swapping all the wives between themselves. dunno.

as an aside, here’s some info from the same book on divorce rates in other, traditional societies [pg. 2]:

“[H]istorical examples of past societies in which divorce rates have been consistently high[:] Two major examples are pre-modern Japan and Islamic Southeast Asia. In nineteenth-century Japan at least one in eight marriages ended in divorce. In West Java and the Malay Peninsula divorce rates were even higer reaching 70 percent in some villages, as late as the middle of the twentieth century…. In direct opposition to developments in the West, modernity brought with it greater stability in marriage and a sharp decline in divorce rates.”

update 06/22: see also more on solving the “polygamy problem” and side-effects of polygamy in three african societies

(note: comments do not require an email. breaking up is hard to do!)