Wall Street Journal 1 April 2011
Polygamy is a popular punchline these days, from HBO’s drama “Big Love” to TLC’s documentary “Sister Wives” and the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” written by the creators of “South Park.” Yet plural marriage is as serious an issue as it’s ever been—and is even on the rise in the West.
Warren Jeffs, the infamous leader of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sect, is in an Arizona jail awaiting trial on charges of bigamy and sexual assault. North of the border, Canadian authorities have been trying to nab his co-religionists. In 2009, prosecutors charged Winston Blackmore and James Oler, two leaders of the fundamentalist community in Bountiful, British Columbia, with polygamy.
The case was thrown out on a technicality, but now Canada’s anti-polygamy statute, which dates to 1890, is being put to the test in a so-called “reference case.” In effect, the government is seeking an opinion from the court on whether the statute is valid. Opponents say that it violates the country’s commitment to religious freedom. “Consenting adults have the right—the Charter protected right—to form the families that they want to form,” Monique Pongracic-Speier of the Civil Liberties Association has said.
Supporters of the statute say that it’s not about persecuting religious outliers or maintaining a traditional definition of family for its own sake. Rather, it is about protecting human rights. The case has begun to inflame passions far from the rural communities of small Mormon breakaway groups.
Polygamy—or more specifically polygyny, the marriage of one man to more than one woman—has been widespread in human history. And it is becoming increasingly common, particularly in Muslim enclaves—including in Paris, London and New York.
A 2006 report by the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights reported that approximately 180,000 people were living in polygamous households in France. For decades, France allowed entrance to polygamous immigrants from about 50 countries where the practice was legal. When the French government banned polygamy in 1993, it tried to support the decohabitation of such couples if a wife wanted to move into her own apartment with her children.
In Britain, where immigration laws have banned the practice for longer, there appear to be about a thousand valid polygamous marriages, mostly among immigrants who married elsewhere, such as in Pakistan. Such families are allowed to collect social security benefits for each wife, although the government has apparently not counted how many are doing so.
In the United States, where numbers are more difficult to come by, anecdotal reports indicate underground communities of polygamists in New York City, particularly among immigrant communities from West Africa.
Where the practice remains common in Africa it cuts across religious lines. But in the West, it has been concentrated among Muslims and breakaway Mormon sects. Under Islamic Shariah law, a man is allowed to marry up to four women as long as he can provide for them equally. This should constitute a limiting factor, especially under conditions of poverty. But one way polygamists circumvent this problem is by getting their governments to support unofficial wives whose ambiguous legal status allows them to make claims for aid.
There are more serious problems that come with the practice of polygamy. My research over the past decade, encompassing more than 170 countries, has shown the detrimental effects of polygynous practices on human rights, for both men and women.
According to the information I have helped to collect in the Womanstats database, women in polygynous communities get married younger, have more children, have higher rates of HIV infection than men, sustain more domestic violence, succumb to more female genital mutilation and sex trafficking, and are more likely to die in childbirth. Their life expectancy is also shorter than that of their monogamous sisters. In addition, their children, both boys and girls, are less likely to receive both primary and secondary education.
This is at least partly because polygynist cultures need to create and sustain an underclass of unmarried and undereducated men, since in order to sustain a system where a few men possess all the women, roughly half of boys must leave the community before adulthood. Such societies also spend more money on weapons and display fewer social and political freedoms than do monogamous ones.
When small numbers of men control large numbers of women, the remaining men are likely to be willing to take greater risks and engage in more violence, possibly including terrorism, in order to increase their own wealth and status in hopes of gaining access to women. Whatever their concerns about protecting religious freedom, or demonstrating cultural sensitivity, Western nations should think twice before allowing the kinds of family structures that lead to such abuses.