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Anthropological literature often reports that African cultures greatly value polygyny, the term used when one man has more than one wife. Traditionally, it is the woman who chooses a cowife—someone with whom she can cope well, like a younger sister or cousin, and in cases where the husband needs a subsequent wife, the preceding wives get to pick their co-wife or wives (Whyte 1980; Lwanga 1976). A man was only qualified to be polygynous if he was rich enough to take care of several wives and children, and the number of wives a man had directly reflected his economic status.

In contemporary Kenya, evidence suggests that polygyny is still accepted, especially among men and, to a little extent, traditional African women. Modern urban women, educated in the West, apparently disdain this institution. They often view women in polygynous unions as being deprived of their basic rights within marriage, having to compete between themselves rather than being partners with their husbands. These families are also economically deprived and live in disharmony as they increasingly compete for the scarce resources at this time when poverty is on the increase in Kenya. However, there is argument that, surprisingly, the very women who disregard polygyny and opt for single parenthood have their children fathered by married men. Could this be, in fact, a reinvented form of polygyny for current times? (Kilbride 1994).

Among the circumstances resulting in polygyny is rural-urban migration in search of cash income. For many male migrants, polygyny is a solution to the problem of spending a lot of time and resources travelling upcountry to be with their families. Therefore, it is not surprising that in today's emerging forms of polygyny, men have latter wives living with them in the urban areas while the first wives take care of their rural homesteads. In some cases, the wives share labor and company in their rural home while the husband is away in town (Kilbride and Kilbride 1990; Kilbride 1994). Also, lack of forces to monitor and sanction who is eligible for polygyny has led to the current economic strife among polygynous families. Traditional leaders and elders who were commissioned to regulate and monitor family lives have lost their authority, and as a result, men who traditionally would not qualify to be polygynous on economic grounds are marrying freely. The erosion of the dowry tradition, which would have required men to pay for the acquisition of additional wives, also mitigates the economic implications that arise from polygyny.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsKenya - The Concept Of Marriage And Family, The Extended Family, The Nonextended Family, Polygyny - Conclusion