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The Effect of Polygamy on the Modern Society Essay

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Updated: May 7th, 2019


Polygamy remains one of the hotly contested and misunderstood topics in the modern society. The most common practice of polygamy is polygyny, whereby one man marries more than one spouse. Polygyny is common in many societies across the world. However, it is outlawed in the Western World. Cultural and religious factors anchor this practice.

Different studies carried out for decades reveal that the practice has far-reaching negative consequences, and hence should be outlawed. On the other hand, the proponents of polygamy argue that there are many benefits associated with the practice. However, the moral question of polygamy has not been addressed adequately. This essay provides an in-depth discussion of polygamy with a view of establishing factors that contribute to the practice, its consequences, and morality issues.

Polygamy is not morally correct due to societal effects

Many studies about polygamy are structured on whether the practice should be recognized, banned, or punished through the law. Little has been written about the moral question on polygamous marriage. However, from a moral ground, polygamy is morally unacceptable due to its effects on societies.

The first social effect of this practice is emanated from the perceived competition by co-wives. They give birth to as many children as they can, as a way of getting a larger share of the common resources that get shared by the family when it comes to inheritance (Tabi, Doster & Cheney, 2010). Giving birth becomes a contest among these wives. Competition in the end produces effects that are injurious to the society. For instance, competition among wives for common resources is likely to culminate conflicts that largely affect society’s stability.

Polygamous marriages are a burden to men and their wives. A man is deprived in mind and body due to the heavy responsibility of sustaining a big family. In addition, men dedicate most of their income on marrying new wives. Consequently, women are deprived psychologically as a result of being reduced to physical pleasure instruments.

These results in child negligence in that, children are less supported and well maintained by their parents. Parents invest less time and money in the upkeep, education, as well as in provision of critical care for their children (Elbedour, Onwuegbuzie, Caridine & Abu-Saad, 2002).

In the end, the society bears the consequences of the problems associated with lack of education and proper parenting of children. One common consequence is substance abuse among children due to lack of parental guidance. The early substance abuse affects societies in terms of increased crime rate (Elbedour, Onwuegbuzie, Caridine, & Abu-Saad, 2002).

One of the impacts of polygamy that have not gotten the attention of many researchers is the scarcity of women. Polygyny denies young and low-status men women because the older wealthier men hoard many women as possible. This results to increased competition, denying young men opportunities to marry wives of their choice.

For men to get these women, they have to gain resources considering the perception that wealth attracts women. Competition for women and resources increases criminal cases within societies (McLaren & Coward, 1999). In the end, a society suffers from increased robbery, rape, murder, kidnapping, and assaults among others.

Marriage provides a foundation upon which a society is built (Waller, 2011; McLaren & Coward, 1999). Social relations, obligations, and duties are derived from marriage and society setups. These hold a society together as one unit. However, polygamy cultivates patriarchal principles that drag the whole society into despotism.

In addition, patriarchal principles destroy the societal fabric since it is more injurious to female and children (McLaren & Coward, 1999). Polygyny disintegrates the social relations, duties, and obligation marriage in the society (Waller, 2011; McLaren & Coward, 1999). This makes the society suffer from conflicts that arise due to erosion of societal relations within marriages.

Polygamy in various parts of the world

Polygamy is a common phenomenon across the world. It is allowed on the cultural and religious basis. Most of the African societies accept polygyny practices from a cultural point of view. On the other hand, the practice is common in Asia due to religious beliefs. However, to some degree, polygyny is practiced in North America and Europe, it is considered illegal (Duncan, 2008).

Most of the African societies stretching practice polygamy. Marriages in these societies are characterized by one man getting married to more than one spouse (Moosa, Benjamin & Jeenah, 2008). Traditional cultures and customs are behind the widespread practice of polygamy in the African societies.

In addition, apart from polygamy being practiced as a result of customs and culture, the Jewish and Islamic beliefs also support polygamy in North Africa. This practice is perceived in African societies as a social practice that ensures family continuity from one generation to another (Moosa, Benjamin, & Jeenah, 2008).

Women responsibility is reduced to child bearing and childless women are treated with contempt. Cultural practices such as wife inheritance largely contributed to polygyny in African society. Men have to remarry widows or women left without support after death of husbands or guardians. It also perceived as one way taking care of the orphans left behind after death of men.

Polygamy is also very common in the Middle East, Asia, and Oceania. This is typically attributed to the Islamic religion, which is the most dominant religion in the Middle East. The Islamic culture permits man to get married to a maximum of four wives provided he is financially stable to support each wife and her children (Al-Krenawi, A., & Slonim-Nevo, 2008).

In addition, the societies of Middle East are value stability and family continuity. On top of this, the Arab society is patriarchal with segregated gender roles where a woman’s contribution is undervalued.

Polygamy is illegal in the Western World. However, the practice is common to many societies in this region (Moosa, Benjamin & Jeenah, 2008). For instance, there is a general consensus that polygyny is practiced in the United States despite being outlawed. Polygamy in North America is believed to emanate from Mormon fundamentalists.

They believe they have to be true custodians of Joseph Smith’s belief that one man needs more than one woman to be exalted after death. In the year 2008, it was estimated that the states of Utah and Arizona have 37,000 polygamists despite the existence of anti-polygamy legislations and federal statutes (Duncan, 2008).

Factors that contribute to societies adopting polygamy

The fear of divorce, infertility, legal, and how women perceive polygamy, contribute to polygamy in many societies. According to Tabi, Doster, and Cheney (2010), the African women perception of polygyny contributes to them accepting the practice. Most of the African women perceive polygyny as beneficial because it guarantees shared responsibilities in performance of household chores, farm work, and rearing of children.

Cultural beliefs have a huge impact on peoples’ attitude and perception. In this regard, attitudes created by cultures play a critical role in encouraging polygamy. For instance, in a study conducted by Awusabo-Asare and Anarfi (1997), most of the Ghanaian women accept co-wives on post-partum abstinence basis. Women perceive polygyny positively. To them, it ensures their husbands continue with sexual activities, when one of the wives is still in the post-partum period.

Fertility also plays a critical role in promoting polygamy in some societies. For instance, in the sub-Saharan Africa, the failure of a woman to bear children can lead to divorce. Children are so important in the African context and women have to bear children to reaffirm their position in marriage, get accepted by husbands, and share wealth.

According to them, children create a bond between wives and their husbands. Infertile women are thus forced to accept co-wives for fear of divorce (Tabi, Doster & Cheney, 2010). This contributes to polygamous societies in many parts of the world.

Attitudes towards unmarried women also play a critical role in encouraging polygamy. Single women eligible for marriage and divorced or separated women have low social status in polygamous communities. It is also considered as a shame on families and tribes, if one remains unmarried for unexplained reasons. The indignity that is associated with being unmarried women pushes them into a polygamous culture to escape shame and social pressure.

Polygamy still occurs today in some nations due to the legal frameworks that recognize the practice. Some countries in Africa have promulgated laws that recognize cultural practices. For instance, in 2000, South Africa promulgated Customary Marriage Act that legalized polygamy in the country (Moosa, Benjamin & Jeenah, 2008).

Polygamy is now legally recognized through the Act, giving women equal rights in marriage. It is also vital to notice that though the Western Nations legally outlawed polygamy practices, they still tolerate it. According to Duncan (2008), in the United States, the federal and state legislation outlaws polygamy. However, minimal cases of polygamy have so far been pursued successfully. The law is ineffective and unable to clamp down the practice in the American society.

There are several positive effects of legalizing polygamy

Proponents of polygamy point out that the practice plays important roles in the society, and hence the need to be legalized. In addition, polygamy proponents argue that legal recognition of polygamy will allow fix the negative attributes attached to it. They also argue that the legalization of polygamy will help prosecute cases related to it effectively (Duncan, 2008). On the other hand, opponents of polygamy argue that the practice is out of place in the modern society due to its negative consequences on individuals, families, and society.

Proponents of polygamy argue that governments should recognize polygamy as legal because polygamous relationships are beneficial. Firstly, polygamy is thought to reduce prostitution on the street. It is argued out that polygamy offers marriage to women who would have otherwise considered the street prostitution as their source of income.

Women are less empowered economically than men. In a society where poverty is prevalent, women prefer getting married in order to share resources with their husbands. Considering that females are more than males in many societies, some women miss opportunities of getting married, and end up in prostitution. On top of this, having more than one wife reduces a man’s sexual exploration outside marriage thereby limiting the level of adultery in the society.

According to Duncan (2008), polygamy reduces the number of fatherless and motherless children. Having more than one wife or husband is ideal in that, if one spouse passes away, children are left under the custody of the remaining spouses. In addition, polygamy unites more than three families within the society.

It enhances cooperation between individual families hence improving social integration. In the end the bonds created through polygamy, promote social harmony. Furthermore, proponents of polygamy point out that the practice helps reduce levels of poverty within a society. There is always the possibility of increased income in polygamous families since each individual contributes to the household budget. In doing these, the level of poverty is reduced within families.

The psychological and physical effects of polygamy

The negative impacts of polygamy to individuals and to society are profound. Children and women are the most affected in polygamous communities. Opponents argue that physical and psychological effects explain why this practice is morally wrong (Moosa, Benjamin & Jeenah, 2008).

The Studies carried out so far point out that polygamy lead to rivalry amongst co-wives. This rivalry stems from competition, jealousy, and unequal distribution of resources (Moosa, Benjamin & Jeenah, 2008). This creates an acrimonious relationship between children and wives.

It causes psychological problems for children and women. Women suffer from psychiatric conditions such as low self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety, and somatization. Children also suffer due to lack of parental attention. They feel displaced from their parents, which result in emotional insecurity. They also exhibit emotional stress and anxiety more than children in monogamous families (Moosa, Benjamin & Jeenah, 2008).

How polygamy leads to gender discrimination

Most of the contemporary communities practicing polygamy discriminate against the female gender. According to Strauss (2012), a polygamous society imposes strict rules on women. Women are forced by religious, cultural, and familial pressures to forego vocational and educational opportunities.

This forces them to enter into marriages as the only option of achieving financial stability. Religious and cultural beliefs require them to be obedient to their husbands no matter the circumstance, in order to avoid divorce. On the other hand, there is great neglect and abuse of children rights. Many societies strive to make boys excel and marry off young girls. This maintains gender imbalances within the society (Strauss, 2012).

In addition to the above moral question of polygamy, Strauss (2012) explains that there is a rampant gender bias and discrimination in polygamous societies. Such societies recognize and accept that the male gender can marry more than one wife. They deny women from having multiple partners. More so, they do not allow same sex marriages.

This elicits the moral question as to why it is morally correct to allow men to have multiple partners and deny women the same right. Strauss further observes that the contemporary polygamous communities promote a sexist culture (2012). Moreover, it promotes hierarchical power relations that limit innovation and individual independence, which significantly cause poverty.

Strauss’ opinions about a society allowing marriage of girls instead pursuing different opportunities hold strong grounds. It is morally wrong to force underage girls into early marriages. Marriage should be informed on adequate consent of all parties involved. Underage girls in polygamous communities are denied the rights to choose what is right for them from a very tender age (Wall, 2003).

In addition, it is not acceptable for Western societies not to acknowledge that polygamy exist in their societies when it does happen. Many individuals in the Western World are ignorant of the existence of polygamy in their society. A secret polygamy case that makes another spouse unaware of its existence is an unethical manifestation of this practice in the modern society.

The positive effects vs. the negative effects of legalizing polygamy

The underlying positives of polygamy are unconvincing in the modern society. Proponents’ arguments are defective and have limited defenses. The positives are by far outweighed by the negative effects on men, women, children, and the society at large. Polygamy promotes inequalities in the society where the central individual in marriage assumes greater rights and expectations.

Husbands having a greater control over the family deny others autonomy, and hence encourages inequalities in the society. It renders one gender as a peripheral spouse, as opposed to the ethical correctness of the marriage that encourages equity and shared rights.

It is critical to acknowledge that the positive effects of polygamy such as a reduction of prostitution and parentless children can also be achieved in monogamous societies. It is always right to be a brother’s keeper in everyday life. The society is socially bound to take care of its members regardless of the family structure. Parentless children are part of the society and cannot be denounced with the absence of polygamy.

However, the consequences of polygamy are permanent and devastating. The injuries to the society such as increased crime, sexist culture, and substance abuse as a result of polygamy are destructive. They can deprive off the social structures that take long to build. In addition, the psychological and physical effects leave permanent marks in an individual’s life as compared to the benefits that are derived from the practice.


Polygamy is a practice that is still inherent in the modern society. It is alive in many societies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and to some extent in Western nations. Cultural beliefs and customs, religion, and legal factors contribute to rampant cases of polygamy.

The justification of polygamy is contested, and the whole concept is misunderstood. Whereas it is acceptable in the majority of societies in Africa and Middle East, it remains a controversial topic in the Western nations. The literature that has covered polygamy calls for its recognition in law or its total ban. The moral question of polygamy remains controversial and little attention is given to it.

Though the practice has few positive, its consequences are injurious to children and women in the society at large. Children and women suffer from psychiatric conditions as well as gender discrimination. On the other hand, the society also suffers from increased crime and unwanted behaviors. From this, it can be concluded that polygamy is structurally in-egalitarian that leads to more negative consequences than the positive ones.


Al-Krenawi, A., & Slonim-Nevo, V. (2008). Psychosocial and familial functioning of children from polygamous and monogamous families. The Journal of social psychology, 148(6), 745-764.

Awusabo-Asare, K. & Anarfi, J.K. (1997). Postpartum sexual abstinence in the era of AIDS in Ghana: prospects for change. Health Transition Review, 7, 257–270.

Duncan, E. J. (2008). Positive Effects of Legalizing Polygamy: Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, The. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 15(315), 315-337.

Elbedour, S., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Caridine, C., & Abu-Saad, H. (2002). The effect of polygamous marital structure on behavioral, emotional, and academic adjustment in children: A comprehensive review of the literature. Clinical child and family psychology review, 5(4), 255-271.

McLaren, J., & Coward, H. G. (1999). Religious conscience, the state, and the law: Historical contexts and contemporary significance. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Moosa, M. Y. H., Benjamin, R., & Jeenah, F. Y. (2008). A review of multi-spousal relationships-psychosocial effects and therapy. South African Journal of Psychiatry, 12(2), 12-14.

Strauss, G. (2012). Is Polygamy Inherently Unequal? Ethics, 122(3), 516-544.

Tabi, M., M., Doster, C. & Cheney, T. (2010). A qualitative study of women in polygynous marriages. International Nursing Review, 57, 121–127.

Wall, T. F. (2003). Thinking critically about moral problems. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Waller, B. N. (2011). Consider ethics: Theory, readings, and contemporary issues. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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