The Effect of Culture on Polygyny in Africa, Thailand and North America

We live in a globalizing world that creates changes in society. These changes are geared towards understanding culture. Culture is shared patterns of interaction through generations of people. In societies around the world, culture is constantly impacting people’s marriage and relationship patterns. Between; Africa, Thailand and North America they all practice different levels of polygyny and understanding ones culture gives us the explanation to why these differences happen.

Polygyny is when a man has more than one wife. Polygyny is the most common form of Polygamy. In most places polygyny is an adaptive practice that provides a man with many children and therefore creating more workers which later equals to more wealth. Polygyny is more common in less educated areas. Timeous (1998) found that well-educated women in polygynous societies tend to be in monogamous relationships where as the men who are more educated become financially successful and are more willing to take a second or third wife. In some cases polygyny usually has a price, a man must be wealthy enough to buy his wife or any other wives. Polygyny is a sign of wealth and having a wife who farms adds to their wealth.

In Africa the culture is very polygynous marriage heavy. African men choose polygyny because having another wife or wives will contribute to the farming in the family and bring in more cash. Therefore, the wife encourages bringing in another wife so she can share the workload. Because co-wives can share and divide tasks like cooking, farming, childcare: it can free women for economic productivity therefore bringing more money into the household. A man may choose polygyny because it allows other to applaud the man for being able to pay and support more than one woman and manage a large household.

Some cultures in Africa prohibit women from having intercourse for several months to several years after giving birth so in order for a man to have a large household he must engage in a polygynous marriage to make more children in between the woman’s abstinence period.

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In this culture women are still being objectified. Having more women signifies greater wealth. This also defers from the value of marriage because the man can’t wait for the woman’s abstinence period to end. Polygyny reflects a lot about the culture in these areas. It reflects how men care mostly about wealth and how they want mainly what’s best for themselves, whether its having the pride of being able to care for a big family or whether its being able to have many wives to do whatever he wants as he pleases.

In Africa many women have come to the conclusion that they’d rather be unmarried and participate in something called “man sharing” which is having a relationship with a man who already has a wife and a job. While they participate in their man sharing they watch as their white counterparts put on a show for them, as they are repeatedly getting married and then divorced. The men who participate in this claim paternity of the child but do not help raise or support the child or their mothers. Many women choose this way of life because they see monogamy as unattainable.
Marriage is important because it encourages reproduction, which ensures survival through procreation. This kind of survival is an adaptive practice. Another form of practice is maladaptive practices, which are people who choose celibacy and choose not to reproduce. No procreation threatens survival.

Statistics show that more African American women are not getting married but are having children. Many are choosing adoption, which affects the rate of reproduction that is not growing significantly. In the next 20 years, if these trends continue we may see a decline in the African American population.

In the past, African parents played a huge role in the selection of their children’s partners because parents wanted their children to have successful marriages. Both boys and girls had to be able to handle certain roles and responsibilities pertaining to their gender before they could marry. The children never objected to the choices that were made because they had to be obedient and their parents tried to find the best suitable match for their child. After negotiations were made and bride-wealth paid off the girl and she was free to go with her husband.
The current status of marriage is different. People are free to marry whomever they choose but many marriages don’t last long anymore and some people do not even get married at all. The times have changed because of the spreading of AIDS because it has “poured cold water” on the institution of marriage.

People have been more conscious whom they pick to wed their daughters too and people are scared to be with multiple partners. Even in polygynous families co-wives co-operate in spying on their spouses to make sure he is not having sexual relations with other women, because another woman may have HIV/AIDS.

Some say the spreading of this disease has made relationships and marriages stronger. Because people are so scared of contracting the disease they are more serious about their marriages and less likely to cheat and step out of line. People are less likely to divorce because they don’t want to fall in love with someone who has may have AIDS. People don’t want to take unnecessary chances.

In Thailand, the family dynamics incorporates home and workspace into one, which crosses the boundary between production and reproduction, mixing family/business, husband/wives, boss/employees, and money/sex. Both ethnic Thai and Chinese talk about mans need for sex and having more than wife, they consider it part of a man’s nature.

To families the wife was the most desirable laborer in a family business because she was so reliable. She was structurally bound to the family business by her interests but mostly by her obligations to her family and commitment to her husband. A polygynyst’s masculine identity conflicts but forces both the wife and husband to keep the family and business doing well by compromising and making sure both parties are happy. But in such situations business and sex intertwine which blur the lines of production and reproduction.

In Thai society, from childhood, men temporarily serve as monks, which is said to transform a “raw man” into a mature man and a complete person. For woman marriage is what makes them a complete person. After serving as a monk and when a man becomes a complete person an older man takes the younger man to a brothel for his first sexual experience. A man’s skill at charming women is defined by his acts as a womanizer. Which blurs the boundaries between prostitution, marriage and the monastery and allows the man to move in and out of them as they please.
The Family Code of 1361 legitimized the practice of polygyny, this code classified the different wives of a noble man into four different categories, those given by the king, by parental approval and ceremonially wedded, those who married through personal choice, and slave wives. Women would constantly have conflicts with the other wives when fighting for the affection of their husband. Minor wives were from lower origin and had no power to support their positions or take any stake in the political arena. They were forced to be content with their “destiny”.
In the 1920’s a few western-educated nobles suggested that polygyny be put to an end so that westerners would have a better perception of Thailand.

In the mid-thirteenth century until 1932, women were considered part of a man’s assets just like land, domestic animals, slaves, servants, children and the elderly. A husband or father could sell his daughter or wife without her consent and were entitled to kill his wife if she committed adultery. The opposite didn’t apply for men because women were not legal entities and had no rights. But when law banned polygyny it didn’t actually change the problem. In 1935, it was abolished not for the good of the people but for the reputation of the country.
In 1949, children of immigrants from rural southern China came to Thailand called, Lukchin. A Lukchin man is strongly encouraged to become a businessman. Business is key when it comes to Chinese masculinity. Lukchin men mix their money-oriented masculinity with the Thai ways of womanizing masculinity. To show off their economic capital they show off their masculinity with business and sex and most importantly polygyny.

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Many in Thailand concluded that as long as one marriage was registered they were still following the law. Most people only cared about the ceremonies anyways so being registered didn’t matter to many, which allowed behind the scenes polygyny. Others avoided marriage registration to avoid taxes or retain more freedom when managing their businesses, which also allowed people to cheat the system.

In 2003, it was suggested that parliament be screened to ensure the law was being followed. Many members of parliament opposed the idea and claimed that if faithfulness were a requirement there would only be about 30 of the 200 members cleared to hold their positions.

In Thai society, they practice Thai Buddhism. In Buddhism men claim superiority over women. They focus on monkhood as high fields of merit for the men and as for the women they are considered to be “polluting agents” to the field of merit. That being said women are prohibited from entering the monastic order. During childhood the son is excused from household chores while the daughter is expected to start her responsibility as a domestic woman. The son is treated with greater consideration and the daughter is served to serve elders and males. From an early age the daughters know that becoming a wife and caretaker isn’t much of a choice it is their destiny.

Since women are lesser than men, they were deprived of literacy and banned from education and knowledge. Women were allowed to serve as Mae chiis, which is lesser than a monk, and they were required to shave their heads and eyebrows and wear a white robe as opposed to a red one. A man could leave his wife and become a monk without her permission and he had the freedom to remarry as he pleased. A wife did not have that freedom, a wife could only remarry if she had her husband’s permission, and even with that permission she still remained his possession. If she decided to end being a Mae chii she still couldn’t remarry without breaking her marriage bond or else she would be punished by law for committing adultery.

In America, Members called Mormons organized the church known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York. The church consists of statues, which forbade polygamy. The church flourished in New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois for 14 years. Under the legal enactments which recognized monogamy as the American ideal of the domestic relation. The church stated that marriage was sacred and there is no acceptance of polygyny. At that time Missouri was a slave state and anything that was opposed to the principal of slavery was looked badly upon. It was assumed that whoever was opposed to slavery would not make a good democratic citizen and form religious hatred and political dislike. This conflict brought people to conflict with their church belief and church relationship. The founding prophet Joseph Smith was reluctant to take additional wives. He claims his reluctance was overcome when he was threatened by an angel threatened him if he didn’t obey the commandment.

Polygynous relationships were very similar to monogamous ones. Some succeeded, some failed. Some were happy, some were not. They had the same influences, like finances, health, education, living conditions, religious commitment, etc. The early LDS Church members entered polygynous relationships because they considered it a sacred duty.

There weren’t many people who denied the preaching of Joseph Smith until there was an “Article on Marriage” was printed in The Doctrine and Covenants as Section 101. It contained a paragraph that said “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” After this was published people started to persecute Joseph Smith. They thought he was wrong and making up his revelation with the angel.

It was not long until the Joseph Smith was arrested. But his arrest did not destroy the church or its doctrines and polygamy continued in secret. Until 1852, when Brigham Young said those who denied the plurality of wives doctrine would be “damned”. Many people continued to live polygynously, because they claimed that is what God had commanded them to do and if they stopped without his consent they would be rejecting God.

After the expulsion from Jackson County, Missouri, the church broke up their enemies drove Mormons away from four states and people realized they couldn’t physically destroy the church. So they attempted to destroy it through legislation. Congress persisted in treating polygamy as a religious tenet and within the meaning of the constitution. Which means the congress could not do anything regarding a person’s practice of religion. This caused people to lose trust in their government. Which lead to an uproar in polygyny, especially in political leaders.

Over the past two hundred years, serial polygyny among politicians has declined. The focus is on politicians because across cultures, heads of political hierarchies consistently have had more mates than anybody else.

Data was collected on men from all three braches of the US Government: executive, judicial and legislative. From George Washington’s first through Ronald Reagans last administration. The highest point was the marriage boom after World War II, the marriage rate gradually increased. The average number of marriages rose from around 60 per 1000 men in 1900, to close to 100 per 1000 men in 1950.

American politicians may have been able to collect more wives than average men because, 1. Powerful men may have been divorced or widowed more often. Assuming that higher status correlates with lower mortality. Divorce has become more frequent between powerful men. 2. Powerful men may have been less likely to never marry. And 3. Powerful men may have had the option to remarry more often.

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In all societies reproduction is the most important. The greatest potential for male reproduction is in a society where marriage is monogamous with polygynous mating. When mating authorities on American slavery had agreed that slaves were sometimes the objects of sexual exploitation. Although there are only a few Presidents that have openly admitted to having had sexual relations with their slaves, it does not mean it did not happen.

According to the African culture, a man is allowed to marry more than one wife. An African man, who has more than one wife, is respected in the society. The African society appreciates a man who is capable to feed a big family. Culture is learned from the previous generation, meaning that people do what their parents were doing. A man who was born in a polygamous family is likely to have several wives and follow his father’s example (Fortunato 45). Children always copy the behaviors of their parents. The African child found a home that had many women, many children, and one man. Therefore, the boy grows up knowing that a man should have more than one wife to be a complete man. Similarly, an African girl has no problem being one of the many women in a man’s home. A girl can get married as a fourth or fifth wife. It is normal and absolutely acceptable in the society. The society believes that a complete man should have many wives to bear him many children (Lampert 211). A woman is supposed to agree to get married to any man who can feed her, and give names to her children. Women in Africa want to get married to a man who has a good name. The man mostly has several wives, and women are comfortable to be among the few wives. They do not only want a companion, but a man who carries a good name. They want a name that will make their children respected in the society. In Africa, being a son or a daughter of a famous man means a lot. Therefore, every woman struggles to be married to such a man, even if he already has other wives (Nettle 612).

According to Zeitzen Miriam, in Thailand, the traditions allow girls to share a husband. It is acceptable for a man to marry the first wife, who is mostly “acquired by his parents”. The man can a look for wealth with his first wife and marry a second wife. From the third wife, Thai man can get slave wives, who are referred to as minor wives. According to Thailand traditions and the law, the man has a right to own as many wives as he can feed (Zeitzen 9). However, only one wife is registered under the law as the legal wife. Other wives are not recognized by the law, but the traditions recognize them. A man pays the dowry for all of them to be given the right to sleep with them. There are communities in North America that still hold the polygyny culture. In America, only 1.4% of the population practices polygyny (Loue 81). American law prohibits marriage between more than two partners. A person can only marry another spouse if a legal divorce procedure has been completed. Polygyny is illegal, and its victims are prosecuted. A person can go to jail or pay fines for marrying a partner when he still has a wife. However, polygyny still exists in North America. George Monger points out that there are Native American communities that still practice polygyny secretly. They marry one legal wife, while marrying secondary wives secretly. The ceremonies are done in secret, using the traditional setup. In the society, a secondary wife should not be seen with a man. They should pretend to be single mothers with children from a particular man. However, they cannot reveal that they are wives to a man (Monger 32).

African women have been oppressed for many years. In most African societies, a woman does not have a say. She should obey the voice of her man without questioning it. In fact, a woman is not allowed to participate in decisions, even those regarding her personal life. It is the responsibility of the elders and fathers to decide what happens in her life. Therefore, any man who desires to marry her can do that with the approval of their parents and clan leaders (Lampert 212). According to the Masaai community of Kenya, a woman cannot refuse to be married, even as the tenth wife, in case the man has proved to the elders that he has enough cows to pay the bride price and feed the woman and her children. Therefore, the man is a slave in the society. She is supposed to follow the rules that man set on her behalf. She accepts to share a man with many women. She has to obey the societal rules, since she has to live in the society (Loue 80). A woman, who rejected to share her husband, could be punished or thrown out of the society (Zeitzen 11). Thus, the African woman had to obey. In a case of the first wife, she had to allow her husband marry as many women as he liked. The woman is supposed to welcome the wives to the home and show the way ahead (Nettle 614).


Thailand women are also discriminated. They are seen as objects, belonging to men. After the second wife, the other wives are referred to as slave wives. They are minor wives who are not recognized by the law. They are sex objects and workers. A man uses them to acquire children and wealth. In North American communities that participate in polygyny, women are also oppressed. The part from the first wife, who is legal in the law, others act like concubines. They are only associated with the man sexually. They work to earn their living and have to obey him. They cannot look for other partners or male friends. According to Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a man has the right to have wives and concubines, just like the Old Testament heroes had (Lampert 213).

According to Tracy Kathleen, polygyny is mostly practiced by men who are wealthy. In most cases, a poor man only stays with one wife. He cannot afford to feed many children and several wives. In the African context, men that had big farms are the ones who marry more than one wife. A man should be in a capacity to cater for the needs of his family. Therefore, only the wealthy can afford to do so. In Thailand, the culture is the same. Men who have the money to pay the dowry to the second and third wives are the ones who could marry more than one woman (Tracy 93). However, in North America, polygyny was not so much associated with wealth, but it was rather a religious activity. Even if in most instances, men had to consider their capacity to feed the family, the poor men even considered that decision. They could marry with an aim of getting wealthy. Wealth in the African culture is determined by the number of children one owns. It is not possible for one woman to give a man more than 20 children (Fortunato 46). Therefore, it requires a man who wants to be in the list of wealthy people to increase the number of lives. The more wives a man has, the more the number of children is. Traditionally, every woman is expected to give her husband as many children as she can bore. The aim is to make a man wealthy. Children, wives, livestock, and farms are all put in one basket, known as a property. Therefore, a man in the community has to do everything possible to increase his wealth (Zeitzen 13).

Loue, Sana argues that religion also contributes to polygyny. In North America, followers of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints practice polygyny. Despite the fact that other Christians believe that polygyny is against their beliefs, members of this church believe otherwise. They claim that the most respected persons in the Old Testament had more than one wife. David had many wives and concubines (Loue 77). He even killed Uriah to marry his life. However, God still says that David is the only man after his heart. Abraham was a man of faith and the father of faith to all Christians. However, he Married Hagar and gave birth to a son, Ishmael (Nettle 615). God did not reject his people who were polygamous. In this case, members of this church claim that the Bible supports polygyny. They argue that Jesus came to strengthen the commandment and the rule of Moses. In this case, polygyny is right and should not be condemned. The government tried to fight with this faith, but some people still practice polygyny in the name of religion (Lampert 215). The Islam religion allows a man to marry up to four wives. A man should have the capacity to feed all the wives and treat them in a similar manner. Thailand, Africa, and North America have Muslims, who practice polygyny because their religion allows it. They follow the Sharia Law, thus, cannot be prosecuted under other laws. The African traditional religion puts the man at the top. He is God’s creation and has the right to rule over a woman. Therefore, a woman should obey what the man believes is right because he has the hand of God (Tracy 95).

According to Loue Sana, most people who practice polygyny are illiterate. They follow what their great grandparents did. They are conservative and want to be primitive. In fact, most of the communities in Africa that still embrace polygyny, are against formal education (Loue 83). They force girls to drop schools and marry old men. In their mind, a woman should be in the kitchen and at home. She should not get education or be a public person (Nettle 617). A woman has a private life, and should not be public. To be able to maintain this perspective, they fight against education for women. They do not take their girls to school because they do not want them to see the light. In Thailand, it is only the illiterate girls that agree to share husbands. Literate girls have rejected this oppressive tradition. They want to be free from the practices that oppress them (Zeitzen 14). In North America, the Native communities that have not been fully educated are the ones that marry more than one spouse. Learned people are concerned with making a modern family that has freedom, friendship, and companionship. It is impossible to create a partnership with four wives and thirty children. Therefore, people avoid such families that cause a lot of harm to the modern family (Lampert 216).

According to Nettle, as a result of polygyny, girls are forced to drop out of educational institutions to get married (617). In Africa, most of the communities that practice polygyny do not take their girls to school. Girls are seen as property and a means of wealth. In this case, they should be “sold” to a man who wants them. The girls are denied basic education to become wives. Their fathers and other clan members wait for the girl to start maturing, and then declare her as a grown up. Among the Somali community, girls as young as nine years can get married. They are not allowed to choose a man to marry. Instead, their father is the one who agrees or disagrees on matters of his daughter’s suitors (Nettle 615). In most cases, polygyny is the main reason behind female genital mutilation. The girls are young and not mature to become wives. Therefore, communities come up with an event that will make the girls mature. They circumcise the young girls to prepare them to become women. FGM has a lot of negative consequences in lives of women. It can cause death and other complications in life of a victim. Unfortunately, they have to undergo the cutting procedure for them to be mature enough to be wives (Fortunato 46).

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Fortunato points out that HIV and AIDs is a common cause of polygyny. When a man has one wife and remains faithful to her, the two are likely to satisfy each other sexually. They are committed to each other, thus, can get satisfaction. In a polygyny family, a man has several wives. A man is likely to get satisfied because he can have a woman every time he wants. However, a woman sees her husband once per week or even after two weeks (Fortunato 40). It can take longer time if a man has a favorite woman that he desires more than others. If a man spends more nights with a particular woman, the rest are likely to suffer loneliness and sexual dissatisfaction. Therefore, women might be tempted to look for other man to satisfy them. Consequently, they can get HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. The diseases will be transmitted from one woman to a man, and to other women in the family. As a man continues to marry new wives, he puts his family at risk. The new wife can have a disease that the family did not have. Through her intercourse with the shared husband, the family acquires diseases that a woman brings (Monger 34).

Tracy Kathleen argues that polygyny causes a lot of poverty in Africa, Thailand, and North America. It is hard for a man to bring up more than thirty children. As a result of polygyny, women give a man many children who are seen as his wealth. Unfortunately, this wealth turns into poverty. There is no free land in the world that the traditional families used for framing. There are many challenges in the current world (Tracy 97). The children born in a polygamous family cannot get a comfortable life. They are too many to feed with the amount of resources available today. Consequently, the children born, are at a risk of high poverty. The girls are married at a young age to old men or as third and fourth wives to a wealthy man to earn the family a living. The family is usually eager and ready to do anything that can give them money. As a result, the girls are exposed to another lineage, just like their mother. They give birth to other poor children, born in a polygamous family. The trend continues, and this is one of the reasons Africa and Thailand are still underdeveloped countries (Nettle 616).

As a result of poverty because of polygyny, crime rates increase. In Africa, there are high rates of insecurity. Children do not get the education because the parents cannot afford it. Hence, they cannot get employment (Zeitzen 15). The parents do not have the money to give them, so that they can start some kind of business. The poor youths require surviving. They end up joining gangs to rob and participate in other crimes to get money. Most of the young people who have joined terrorist groups come from polygamous families. In fact, most of the youths in terrorist groups are believed to come from Islam religion. They are brought up without good care from their father (Lampert 217). They lack a father figure and a man’s authority when growing up. The fathers are busy trying to work for their family. They have many children and they cannot concentrate on all of them. They cannot understand when the children need them or require attention. Thus, they become deviate from the norms of the society. They want to do what other people are not doing. Crime rates increase because the children brought up in polygamous families are poor and have poor parental education (Fortunato 50).

According to Nettle David, polygyny families cause conflicts and disagreements in the society. According to polygamous communities in Thailand, only a first wife is legally married, according to the law. The other wives are secondary and cannot claim any inheritance. In North America, the case is the same. A man should only marry one wife (Nettle 618). The secondary wives are secretly married. It is only the family that knows they are wives. They should never claim to be wives to a man who have a first wife. It becomes very hard for a family to share resources. Children are entitled to inheritance. In case a man dies, the family is left in a dispute. The wives and the children fight for the wealth that a man leaves. The conflicts escalate because the family is too big to be united. In some cases, these family conflicts led to murder and planned revenge that can take a long time to resolve (Zeitzen 16).

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