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Polygamy: Women's Position In African Society And Cultures

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1.0 Introduction

Different cultures view women in different ways. Women in African society and cultures have resisted traditionally in contradiction of certain models that all women encounter. The female personality is different according to each culture and their customs but many cultures are based on male control where women have less power. Women across the world experience suppression in getting jobs, education, sexuality and reproductive choice. The coming of feminism movements in Africa has helped in changing the position of African women their communities. Women are now able to go to school, join politics, and secure high leadership positions in societies. Women have now reproductive and social rights to divorce and birth control. Laws are in place protecting them from sexual assault and physical abuse. However, western paradigms in the area of law and women issues are unconsciously and uncritically applied to explain women’s position in African societies. This has make women in African societies to seen as being oppressed by their own cultures in terms of beliefs and practices.

Western feminism/culture is worldwide spread and imposes both the positive feminist ideals and the conflicting negatives feminist ideals on African societies. This easy will explore the unconscious and uncritical application of western culture to view the position of women in Africa, establish issues on which Western feminism and African feminism can develop common ground and propose strategies that can be used to ensure greater co-operation between western feminism and African feminism.

2.0 Examples of women issues that are unconsciously and uncritically applied to explain women’s position in African societies by western paradigms in the area of law.

There are a number on women’s issues that the western feminist apply to African societies without understanding the African culture. This has led to the collision of most of the women’s rights and African culture. The following are some of the examples of women’s issues that are unconsciously and uncritically applied to African societies to explain women’s position.

2.1 Sexuality

African culture have of customs pertaining to women’s sexuality which western feminist’s view as a violation of women’s rights. Radical feminists argue that patriarchy controls the women’s body by following those cultural practices which most of them are done to please men. The following are some of the African cultural practices that are condemned by western feminists.

2.1.1 Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation is also referred to as female circumcision or female genital cutting. It is the partial or total cutting away of the external female genitalia, generally as one of the element of rite of passage preparing young girls for womanhood and marriage (Diop et al. 2017). Its contestants see it as an important part of their cultural and ethnic identity and some see it as religious obligation. Countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Mali, just to mention a few has this cultural practice as central to their culture.

The World Health Organization describes the procedure as generally being performed by a traditional circumciser in the girl’s home. The cutter is usually an old woman who uses un-sterile devices e.g. knives, razors scissors, glass, sharpened rocks and fingernails. (World Health Organization (WHO) 2012). Western feminists have opposed the practice of FGM, because to them the practice causes harm to women’s health and wellbeing. They also believe that it is a ritualized of child abuse and violence against women, a violation of human rights. This has led to the rise of legislations which criminalize the practice.

Article 5 or CEDAW states that state parties shall take all appropriate measures, to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices (Nations 2006). In trying to enforce this article, in Kenya, the government passed the prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation act in 2011. Among other things, the act provides offences to (1) any person, including a person undergoing a course of training while under supervision by medical practitioner or midwife with a view of becoming a medical practitioner or midwife. On the other hand the act states that in the process of committing an offence under subsection (1) a person causes death of another person, that person shall on conviction be liable to imprisonment for life (National Council for Law Reporting 2011).

Parsitau (2017) points out that since Kenya banned the practice in 2011, but FGM/C is still increasingly conducted underground, secretly in homes or clinics by health care workers and providers. The workers cut both young women and grown women which symbolizes the importance of the practice to the African women. Women in Kenya and other part of Africa where this practice takes place says FGM is a positive practice because it enhance women’s values and marriageability in their communities. In Guinea FGM has been a crime since 1965 which attracted death punishment, but no case has been brought to trial. The United Nations Children Fund in 2005 said 99 percent of women in Guinea are cut, a rate which has not changed for decades.

2.1.2 Virginity testing

In South Africa, there is a custom called virginity testing which is done in a ceremony where by girls are laid in a tent. There, one by one they receive a cursory inspection of their genitals by a woman in a ceremonial beaded hat. The inspector pronounces judgment on the state of each girl (Scorgie 2006). To many Zulus and Xhosas virginity testing is a valued and commendable custom that depresses early sex and protects women from HIV and Aids.

Many feminist advocates and children’s rights has been condemning the practice claiming that it is unscientific and discriminatory to girls who are publicly and perhaps falsely accused of having their virginity lost (Lafianiere 2005). The South African government through the parliament took action by prohibiting the practice of virginity testing in the Children’s bill in 2005. During the time when the bill was in parliament, women protested against the impending ban on the practice and wanted the Commission of Gender Equality to speak for them on the important of the practice. They claim virginity testing to be legal (Scorgie 2006).

The children’s bill was passed into an act and certain considerations were made because the practice was not completely banned. The practice was completely banned to the children under the age of 16. To children older than 16, the practice may be performed but with the girls consent to the testing in the prescribed manner and after proper counselling. In section (6) the act also prohibits the disclosure of the results without the girls consent. Section 7 prohibits the marking of the body that undergone the testing (Makoae et al. 2015).

The practice was criticized and banned because, the advocacy said it infringes upon girls rights to boldly integrity and privacy. They argue that stigmatization, humiliation and embarrassment were likely consequences of the testing no matter how sensitivity the testing was performed. They also pointed out that girls security and freedom was compromised by such public displays of virginity (Scorgie 2006).

Conferences were held to stop virginity testing which involved chiefs. The traditional leaders insisted to uphold their custom and they urged the activists that there are laws that were passed and do not necessarily have any impact on the lives of people. They imagined that the ban of virginity testing will be one of those laws (The New Yolk Times 2005). According to the traditional leaders, the practice help to curb the incidence of teen age pregnancies and stems the rising tide of HIV infections among young people including STIs. As a tradition, the practice is also seen as a way of encouraging pride in local heritage.

2.1.3 Abortion

Abortion is another issue that western feminists especially the radicals want to impose on African women. They argue that men control women’s body by not allowing them to terminate the pregnancy whenever they want. According to them, a woman to be pregnant is oppressive and the woman should have the choice to terminate the pregnancy. In most of the western countries termination of pregnancy nowadays is legal because of the radical feminists effort and they wish the same thing to happen to Africa (Willis and Aronowitz 2015).

People in Africa are resisting because the African tradition respect life of a human being as stated in the human rights declaration. The scriptures has also always stress the sacredness and the respect of each and every human being. Turyomumazima (2018) points out that termination of pregnancy in Africa is only acceptable in unexpected conditions. In African Traditional beliefs and practices, there is no place for abortion because African people loves Children. Children in African communities are extremely valued, they are regarded as blessings from God. That is why when a child in born in most of the African communities, the baby is welcomed with very much joy (Mbiti 1990). In Africa, marriage is an important institution in which procreation is supposed to be taking place hence marriage and procreation are unity in African communities. Mbiti (1990) says without procreation marriage is incomplete. Pregnancy is the first indication that the family will add another member. Women who fails to produce children are not happy and are not respected hence abortion cannot be allowed in the African society.

In Malawi for a woman to miscarry is a very much painful thing to her and the whole family because during the pregnancy everyone is happy as they expect to add another human being to the family. In Malawi for a woman to abort is evil and it is punishable by the laws. Chapter 7:01 section 149 of the penal code prohibits abortion by saying that any person who attempts to procure abortion, or anyone who supply drugs or instruments to procure abortion commits a felony and it attracts the punishment of 14 years imprisonment (Laws of Malaŵi 2015).

2.2 Motherhood

Akujobi (2011) defines motherhood as an automatic set of feelings and behaviours that is switched on by pregnancy and the birth of the baby. It is an experience that is said to be profound shaped by social context and culture. Being a mother is a biological assigned task that everyone as far as women are concerned will pass through. To be a mother in African society is an exciting thing that led one to be respected. The Marxists feminists argue that child bearing and rearing is an unpaid work in the public domain which needs to be compensated for. The radical feminists concur with them that motherhood is oppressive and they recommended women to go for a biological revolution characterized by utero fertilization to avoid the oppression.(Willis and Aronowitz 2015).

This is contrary to how Africans have respect for mothers. To be barren is a shameful thing in African culture, the woman who have no children is seen as in complete and Mbiti (1990) calls it dead end of human life not only genealogical level but also herself. In Malawian culture, if a woman is barren, all necessary means are taken to make that woman productive. It includes involving traditional healers who provide the woman with traditional medicine of which most of the times helps. So motherhood is in many African societies bound in many cultural and religious meanings. Mbiti (1990) recognizes the concept of mother when he says that it is central to African Philosophy and spirituality. Motherhood is a joyful and advantaged state for the woman because in pregnancy a woman grows and shine and she receives special treatment from her husband and her mother in law. In Africa the primarily function of a woman is motherhood and almost every girl when reach a certain age desires to be a mother.

Article 14 (1) (b) of the African protocol of the rights of women states that women has the right to decide whether to have children, the number of children and the spacing of children (African Union Commission 2003). This contrary to the African tradition because there is no choice of being a mother or not because children in Africa are wealth. In Nigerian among the Yuloba, a woman is considered real woman when she has proven to be productive (Akujobi 2011). A woman without a child is viewed as a waste of herself to her husband and the society. African women enjoys the experience of being a mother and does not consider it disturbing, rather sees it as an honor.

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2.3 Polygamy

Polygamy is another issue that is misinterpreted in African societies by western feminists. They points out that polygamy is oppressive to African women. Africans are known by their culture and customs hence polygamy is one of the custom/cultural identities and is no way regarded as a way of oppressing women. The custom fits well into the social structure of traditional life and into the thinking of the people serving many purpose.

There are a number of reasons why polygamy is allowed in African societies. The first one is barrenness; this is the inability of producing children particularly women. Like I already explained in the issue of abortion, African people loves children, so if a woman is not able to produce, the husband is allowed to take another women to assist the first wife in bearing children. This is common in Malawian culture. The woman is usually aware of the new development since the husband first seek consent from her and most of the times she is the one who choose the women for her husband to marry. In Yoruba culture in Nigeria, polygamy is done in a form of woman to woman marriage. This mostly happens if the woman is barren. What happens is, if a man marries a woman who is not capable of producing children, the wife marries a woman who she directs her husband to be sleeping with in order to have children (Cadigan 1998).

However in some Cultures of Malawi, for instance the Tumbuka, a man can have as many wives as he want as far as he is able to support them and manages to pay malowolo (bride price). Sometimes in this culture, polygamy can come in when the wife is pregnant. So to avoid the man having an affair outside his marriage, the family of the wife brings a sister of the wife as a second wife. Polygamy is also fueled by religion for instance Muslims and the apostolic churches. So according to the African tradition, polygamy is acceptable and it is not oppressive the first wife always allows it to happen.

3.0 Common grounds for Western Feminism and African Feminism

The common grounds of western and African feminism can be understood if we understand the meaning and the goals of these feminists. Feminism is a diversity of political movements, ideas and societal movements that share a corporate objective to express, form and achieve political, economic, and personal and gender equality. This includes fighting for gender labels and looking for establishment of educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men. So African Feminism and Western Feminism are feminists from different continents with the common goal of fighting for rights of women.

The following are some of the common grounds for African Feminism and western feminism;

3.1 Advocacy for Women’s Rights

The main aim of feminists is to fight for the expansion of the rights of the role of women in societies. As also seen in the definition of feminism their goal is to fight and establish social justice and get rid of gender inequalities(Kaboré 2017). Feminists also believe in the social, political and economic equality of sexes. Since both African feminism and western feminism are centered in fighting for social justice and gender equality, they can walk together in fighting for positive change in the lives of women. This can be well done through the United Nations women’s conventions and international conferences where they can be sharing different challenges in their continents concerning women oppression and at least come up with solutions to those problems.

Since the founding of the United Nations, the equality between men and women has been among the most fundamental guarantees of human rights dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women (UNHR 2014) Article 1 (3) of the united nations stipulates that one of the purpose of the united nations is to promote human rights as fundamental freedoms without a distinction as to race, sex language and religion. The prohibition of discrimination based on sex is repeated in article 13(1) (b) (Un charter 1945). Women’s rights are human rights, but human rights are included in legislations of different states. So it is the duty of both African and Western feminists to work together and fight for women’s rights to be included in the legislations of different states.

3.2 Fighting for women’s reproductive rights and family and eradication of violence against women

The Beijing platform for action defines violence against women as any act of gender based violence that result in physical, sexual or psychological harm of suffering to women including of such acts coercion arbitrary deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or private life (Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Beijing 1995). Violence against women is a worldwide problem which needs African and western feminists to curb. Violence against women is at the front position on the struggle for women’s rights as human rights hence needs to be addressed by the feminist.

African feminism and Western feminism can also work together in the fighting for reproductive health rights for women and family planning. Reproductive health rights should be like freedom to tie our heads the way we want. Feminists should at all cost try to sensitize African women especially in rural areas on reproductive health issues so that women should have a say when it comes to provision of services (Knowles 2012). Feminist should work together fighting for the introduction of sex and reproductive related education in schools so that young women will be aware of them at an early stage. Experience has shown that most of the countries in Africa does not offer such kind of education in primary schools as a result girls drop out school because of early pregnancies before they learn reproductive issues which is contrary to most of the western countries (Knowles 2012). If African and Western feminists work together in issues like this they will learn from each other and at some point adopt the strategies hence achieving their common goal.

African and western feminists on the other hand needs to work together in African countries to encourage women on family planning issues. Many people in Africa, reproductive health and rights are not accepted because they fear that it means abortion. But reproductive rights does not mean abortion and this way there is need for awareness and access (Knowles 2012).

3.3 Women participation in Political leadership

Women’s participation in political issues is another important ground in which African feminism and Western feminism can play together. Women have the right to equal say in the issues that affect their lives whether it’s deciding how their house hold income is spent or how their country is run. Unfortunately violence, poverty and gender roles hinder women to be heard. There are many obstacles that prevent women participation in politics. Most of the women are poor, uneducated and are subjected to greater caring responsibilities.

In Malawi, a high profile 50-50 campaign was launched prior to 2009 election in order to increase women participation in parliament (Amundsen et al. 2016). This campaign worked only in 2009 elections where 22.3 percent of women represented in parliament in a period of 2009-2014 and president Muthalika filled his cabinet with 23.8 percent post with women. In 2014 elections the number of women representatives in parliament decreased to 16.7 percent. Different researches showed that most of the women lacked financial support and lacked full support from their political parties (Amundsen et al. 2016). On the other hand women get discouraged to participate in politics because they face prejudices, harassment and violence as they present a challenge to traditional gender roles and power relations, for instance recently in Malawi a woman politician was labeled prostitute on a political rally and the president was quite which angered many feminism organizations.

So African feminists and western feminists can work together on the issue of women’s participation in politics by voicing out for women’s full, meaningful public political participation and should be enabled by a range of institutions including countries constitution, the electoral system and temporary special legal measures. If women have place in political leadership e.g. in parliament, it is easy for them to address issues that affect their lives and have an influence in amending the legislations.

4.0 Strategies that can be used to ensure greater cooperation between Western feminism and African feminism

There are a number of strategies suggested in this paper that can be used for greater co-operation between Western Feminism and African feminism as explained below;

4.1 Globalization

The world is becoming more and more united. Technological developments are rapidly changing the way people learn, work and communicate. So to ensure greater co-operation between Western feminism and African feminism there is need to encourage the use of technology for the feminists to learn new this from each other. For instance the use of online networks between feminists. This will help to bring both Western and African Feminists together because they will be able to know what is happening from either side of the groups. The coming and use of internet has proven to be the easiest way of sending and receiving in formation. Due to this greater access to information, it will allow African feminists to learn about life and tradition of the other parts of the world including those pertaining to the role of women possibly affecting attitudes and behaviours, and likewise the Western feminists. This will help to bridge the gap that is there between them. They will start then thinking in the same way rather than speaking of separate things yet the all claim to be rights of women.

4.2 Need for more research

Western feminists have a tendency of generalizing ideas they are not well conversant of. For instance some other issues relating to women in the African culture which they think are oppressive to women. It is important that both the African feminists and the Western feminists should do research so that the hidden ideas of different cultures should be known before criticizing. Western and African culture needs to take into consideration concept called cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism refers to not judging a culture to one’s own standards of what is write of wrong, strange or normal. Instead one should try to understand cultural practices of the other group in its own cultural context (Schwab and Korea 2018). For instance, instead of thinking FGM is bad /harmful cultural practice one should instead find out why such cultural practice is done. Then one would understand that it protects women from contacting HIV and Aids plus STIs since it reduces sexual desires. Cultural relativism can only be achieved through involving both African feminists and Western feminists in comprehensive research. Feminists from Africa should do research concerning their culture and publish them so that western feminists should read and understand why some thighs happens in their culture. Western feminists should also do in the same way so that Africans should understand what happens in the western culture. This will prevent judging things based one’s culture without understanding the other culture hence great co-operation.

4.3 Conducting conferences which includes both African feminists and Western feminists

It is very important to be conducting different feminists’ conferences where policies relating to gender issues and protection of women’s rights may be generated. When these policies are made at international level, participants from different states should import them to their respective countries, educate other women in their communities and also fight for the policies to be included in the legislations. In so doing there will be greater co-operation since the feminists actions will be universal.

5.0 Conclusion

African women respect and accept African culture as a belief and behaviour objects shared by groups of people. African cultures place significant values on ceremonial practices and other things in which gender of certain people is portrayed. For instance FGM and virginity testing portrays the female gender and are very important practices for women in most of the African societies. They are also assist women in preventing the modern pandemic e.g. HIV and Aids and also STIs. But the fact that these mechanisms for achieving these ends are uniquely African in origin and orientation they are not accepted by the West. To my understanding FGM is just the same as male circumcision because they all involve the painful cutting of the private parts for certain goal. On the one hand there is no place for abortion in Africa because it is a disgrace and evil thing in African society, and motherhood will never be an oppressive thing in Africa because every woman at a certain age expects to be a mother and is happy with it. Women without children are useless in African society. However western feminist cannot continue to erase Africa but there is need to do more research, conducting conferences and use technology to connect worldwide so that African and Western feminism can have a greater co-operation and work together. Western and African feminism can also work together in fighting for women’s rights, reproductive and family planning women’s participation in politics.

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Polygamy: Women’s Position In African Society And Cultures. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from
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