Malawi plans a ban on polygamy


In recent weeks, a potential ban on polygamy to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS has raised the ire and concern of many Malawians. While the law will not affect those already in polygamous marriages, it carries a five-year jail sentence for those who attempt to take multiple wives after its passing. Malawi is a country stricken with a 12% prevalence rate of HIV, with almost 1 million people living with HIV/AIDS. A recent BBC article reports that the Minister of Gender and Development, Patricia Kaliati, said the proposed ban is also intended to protect women from abuse in polygamous marriages, in which wives inevitably contend for attention and resources from their joint husband.

While polygamy simply means “many spouses,” it is typically male-driven, and results in women playing passive roles in their relationships. This relationship dynamic makes it difficult to practice safe sex with their husbands or other sexual partners. If partners have sexual intercourse outside of their legal marriages, the net of HIV infection may spread even wider. While the government cannot effectively monitor sexual intercourse outside of marriages, it can control the legality of marriages. For years, both the government and health NGOs have considered many cultural practices, including polygamy, to be an impediment to curbing the rate of HIV/AIDS and to protecting women’s rights. Following the ban’s proposal, many Muslims in Malawi claimed the ban was a form of discrimination against them. Christian and traditional African religious groups also contend that the law is an infringement on their culturally sanctioned practices.

Experts are not unified in tying polygamous relationships with the spread of HIV/AIDS; certainly, the spread of infection depends on such factors as whether a partner is infected, whether a partner is engaging in extramarital sex with a partner that is infected, or if both partners, married or unmarried, follow safe sex practices. Indeed, the 2010 UNGASS Country Progress Report indicates that the spread of HIV/AIDS may be caused by other practices beside polygamy: wife-inheritance, where a widow is inherited by the deceased’s brother or male relative; death rites, where a widow must have sex with the brother of the deceased in order to cleanse the community of spirits; sexual activity among youth; and prostitution. These are among the main factors contributing to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. However, it has been shown that one of the leading causes of the spread is sexual intercourse between multiple partners. Furthermore, the prevalence of infection is high among concurrent relationships, and among those who have had many sexual partners. Therefore, the argument against polygamy is that if one or both partners are infected, HIV can be spread to other marriage partners, thereby increasing the pool of infection. Others view polygamous marriage as a way to limit the spread of infection by containing sexual partners within the legalized net of marriage. Despite this, researchers have found that HIV rates are higher among polygamous sets versus monogamous couples; extramarital rates are higher among polygamous sets; and women in polygamous relationships tend to be infected at a higher rate than women who are in monogamous relationships.

The problem with the possible ban is that it will not necessarily stop the practice of polygamy. Instead, the practice may occur in secret, possibly further marginalizing women by denying second, third, and fourth wives the recognition of their marriage and their rights within that marriage. Many believe that the government is not going to solve the issue by simply making polygamy illegal, but instead make the situation even worse by making it go underground. While many can debate whether polygamy is a safe practice, especially in a country where HIV infection is so common and easily contracted through multiple partners, one must consider whether the government is in fact looking at HIV prevention in a myopic way. Furthermore, many proponents of polygamous marriage view the arrangement as advantageous to women, where many women may be protected economically and socially by one man. This may be essential in a population in which the number of marriageable women is greater than marriageable men.

If polygamous marriage is an accepted way to protect and economically support a number of women, simply making the practice illegal serves to hurt women more than it will help them. The Malawi Government might better serve the women it claims to be protecting by strengthening and broadening programs that stress the absolute importance of safe sex, the use of condoms, and the empowerment of women. For example, the Government could instead enact a program that advocates for education and economic support within their villages, in order to prevent prostitution as the only path to livelihood. Furthermore, the Government should work more to enforce HIV/AIDS testing prior to marriage so that wives and husband do not carry the disease into the marriage network, or are at least aware of their partner’s health condition. By simply making a practice illegal, the Government of Malawi does truly force the issue underground, which will undoubtedly further marginalize women and make no real progress on cutting down the HIV rate.

Source: altmuslimah

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