By Sharon Atieno Onyango
Published November 12, 2015
“Why do well educated men marry more than one woman and thus bring inevitable conflict in families?” a woman poses.
“It isn’t just well educated men who choose to be in polygamous relationships but well educated career women also choose to go into polygamous marriages,” another woman, who says she has a Master’s degree in Gender and Development Studies, responds. “A beneficiary of polygamy, I am a second wife and I don’t experience any problem in my family that is absent from monogamous marriages.”
At this juncture the moderator of the discussion that is being recorded for broadcast on BBC TV, Radio, Online and Mobile, asks any woman in the audience who’d willingly enter a polygamous marriage to lift up hand hand; several hands go up to the surprise of those gathered at the Bomas of Kenya’s Cultural Centre in Nairobi to look at ‘What Does Equality Mean for Women in Africa?’ for BBC Global Questions programme that goes on air from November 13, 2015.
How can any woman support polygyny, a practice that is considered to be one of the cultural practices that undermine the well-being of women?
Polygamy is recognized under the laws of Kenya,” says Njoki Ndung’u, a judge of the Supreme Court of Kenya.
And Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and former Nigerian Health Minister, takes exception to the comment, saying he and the judge are ‘speaking from two sides of the same coin’.
But Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonian American who says she holds a doctoral degree in Cultural Studies, is circumcised and that she defends the rights of circumcised women, drops the bombshell: her grandfather had 20 wives and that many of these women were chosen by her own grandmother for her grandfather!
“I wouldn’t mind to be in a polygamous marriage provided I am the favourite wife,” says Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Though ‘bride-price’ or ‘dowry’ was initially a symbol of appreciation to the bride’s parents by the bridegroom’s family, a woman from Uganda says her people have turned the ritual into what she terms as ‘a get-rich-quick scheme’ throughwhich they offer their daughters to ‘rich men’.
“Parents now look for rich men to marry their daughters at very high bride-price. The more educated the girl is, the higher the bride wealth,” she said.
Though laws in many African countries, including Kenya, make everyone equal in every sense of the word, culture makes it a taboo for a woman to inherit land, it was observed. And women who spoke agreed to abide by the traditions and customs of their people.
“The major problem with empowered women leaders who hold political positions is that they forget to push women’s agenda and focus only on benefiting themselves,” observed Betty Massanja, a Tanzanian lawyer and women’s rights activist.
A woman from Nairobi said only elected male leaders return to the grassroots to work with the electorate and that women, once elected, keep to themselves and no longer want to associate with the women who gave them the posts in the first place.
Hafsa Mossi, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly from Burundi, was in agreement with Massanja who called for the formation of an East African women’s watchdog body to monitor the performance of women leaders and question their implementation of their pre-election promises.
“The empowerment of women won’t work if it excludes that of men,” Mushikiwabo said. There is also need to empower men as they, too, face many issues as women but are often neglected as if every man were in a privilegd position, she said. Husband battery, bleeding to death during circumcision, illiteracy due to taking care of issues such as livestock and farming were some of the problems Mushikiwabo said were affecting boys and men yet no one came out to defend them as everyone is focused on their female counterparts.
When women become empowered, it was said, most of them tend to get arrogant and disrespectful to social norms and values. The men tend to keep away from single women while those who are already married tend to frustrate their husbands, often resulting in domestic violence.
But perhaps the issue that caused most confusion was how women could defend female circumcision, a practice that is considered not just harmful but also as undermining the advancement of the fair sex.
Dr Ahmadu, co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose (AWA-FC), surprised the gathering when she declared that she had willingly returned to Sierra Leone from USA at the age of 21 in order to be circumcised. She took exception to the term ‘female genital mutilation’, saying a more neutral term—female circumcision or female genital surgery—should be used as this rite of passage is an honourable initiation ritual.
How can women, who are being rescued from circumcision, be the ones fighting back to keep the practice alive?
When Dr Babatunde Osotimehin said female circumcision should be stopped because it brings about complications during child birth besides denying a woman sexual pleasure, Dr Ahmadu dismissed the sentiments with; “Don’t some non-circumcised women also die in child-birth?” and “Circumcised women also experience pleasure during sexual intercourse.” And who, between the two, would know this better than the latter, a circumcised woman?