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African Tradition Of Polygamy Faces Economic, Legal Challenges

Beatrice intently watches the face of a visitor to her cinder-block home, hoping to find a sign of empathy. Finally, she confides: Her husband has had children with five other women, several of whom have become her co-wives. Now Beatrice often has to fend for herself.

"They say a man has the right to marry as many women as possible. But I say, look, the man I'm supposed to be sharing my life with, we're not sharing any happiness, we're not even sharing any sorrow," she says. "I'm running the home almost alone."

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Polygamy, the practice of taking more than one wife at the same time, remains the lot of many African women, particularly those in Muslim countries. But the practice is under pressure. Mores are changing. And with the continent's economy in a downswing, even many middle-class men can't support several wives and large families.

Beatrice, who lives in Kampala, Uganda, attended college and has a degree in marketing from a business college. When she married her husband two decades ago, she says, she didn't imagine he would take on more wives.

"Many people think it's just the downtrodden, but women across all classes are in this situation," says Janet Kabeberi Macharia, a law professor at the University of Nairobi and coordinator of a research project called Women in Law in East Africa.

In rural Africa, the practice has been seen as an economic necessity, since multiple wives and their children provide unpaid labor in farm fields. Historically, the first wife helped choose her co-wives, because new brides essentially became her coworkers.

But times are changing. As more Ugandans move to cities, Western ideas about monogamy have gained more influence. Some men still practice polygamy in towns. But now they often resort to hiding their additional marriages from their first wives, says Fabian Byomuhangi, a program officer with the United Nations Population Fund in Kampala.

"When polygamy moves from rural to urban areas it becomes contradictory. In the countryside a man would marry for social status and, more importantly, for economic gains," he says. "Yet most men in urban areas will not take pride moving around with two women and introducing them to their friends as their wives."

Ugandan women are using the legal system to challenge polygamists, demanding that husbands meet their commitments, or make fewer of them.

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In Kampala, polygamous men are "feeling the heat," says Jacqueline Asiimwe, an attorney with the Ugandan Association of Women Lawyers. The group, known by its acronym, FIDA, began Kampala's first free legal-aid clinic. Ms. Asiimwe says many Ugandan men fail to appreciate FIDA's role.

"They used to call us 'a bunch of frustrated women.' They'd say 'all the FIDA women are unmarried. They're people who have failed in their marriages. That's why they're going out teaching other women to be rebellious,' " Asiimwe says.

But some women in polygamous marriages endorse the custom. Many African Muslims, as well as some Christians, practice it.

"On the one hand, I feel it should be banned," Ms. Macharia says. "On the other, I ask why I should I impose my monogamous stand on other women?"

FIDA attorneys explain to women that while custom may permit the practice of multiple marriages, husbands are legally bound to provide financial support for all their wives and children.

"Now, when men in Kampala receive a letter on FIDA stationery, it can cause panic," Asiimwe says. "It's not as though we glory in that fact. We're trying to teach men that they should take responsibility."

African societies adhere to a blend of written law and customary or traditional law. The mixture often works to the detriment of women. Beatrice, for instance, was wed in a traditional ceremony that didn't include a trip to the court house or a Christian church. So her customary marriage isn't recognized under statutory law. The arrangement grants her little right to inheritance or a share of her husband's property.

Many African women lawyers advocate legal reform, rather than prohibition of polygamy. They want new laws that recognize all forms of marriage, including customary weddings.

Many women also back laws that call on men to seek their first wife's consent before entering into any other marriages.

The overall objective, FIDA lawyers say, is to ensure that if a woman enters a polygamous relationship, she does so by choice, not because she lacks social or economic clout.

In the Kampala neighborhood of Kamwokya, Helen Elizabeth, a second wife and mother of six, recently ended her multiple marriage.

"For me, there was no happiness in a polygamous home. There was division and discrimination among the children. A man may want to be neutral, but he can't," she says.

"The life I lived in my marriage was a life of competition. I would think, 'What did my co-wife put on? Can I buy something better?' I know I wasted a lot of time that I would have used for constructive and positive things for my children.

"Times are changing," she says. "Many women now stand up bold and say, 'I'm not doing this. I can stand on my own.' "

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