To be or not to be polygamous

Saturday February 13 2010

WE DO: Milton Mbhele, a South African, wed his

WE DO: Milton Mbhele, a South African, wed his four wives on the same day. There was a sense of triumph on the groom's face as he stepped out of the limousine. Internet Photo 

By Edgar R. Batte & Evelyn Lirri

Early this week a local human rights organisation, Mifumi petitioned the Constitutional Court asking it to declare polygamous marriages unconstitutional. While the proposal has been welcomed by gender and rights activists, some polygamists and the Muslim fraternity give their candid views on the subject. Edgar R. Batte & Evelyn Lirri put two and two together.

The controversial practice of polygamy where a man marries more than one wife is back in the news. It has been sparked off by a petition by a human rights group, Mifumi, who have petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare the practice unconstitutional.

Among the people who have expressed their views about marrying many wives is a prominent government official, Mr Francis Mwesigwa-Rukutana Minister of State for Higher Education who told this paper that he is “proudly polygamous.”

Mr Rukutana says monogamous men, more often than not, live a pretentious life with mistresses and illegitimate children which they won’t declare to their so-called “official” wives.

“As far as I am concerned that’s so bad. All my wives should be known as my wives. If I have a relationship with a lady and we go as far as getting a child why should that lady be a mistress?” the minister, who confesses to having four wives and 15 children, said.

Mr Rukutana lashed at rights organisations who want polygamous marriages declared unconstitutional saying they should instead spend their energies on dealing with married men in informal extra-marital relationships which he describes as very dehumanising. “That I have an official wife and the other is a mistress! If we are in love and go to the extent of having a child, why should she be second grade? All of them must rank the same,” he said.

Court petition
Mifumi (U) Ltd, a human rights organisation, threw a spanner in the works this week when it filed a court petition asking that polygamy- where a man can marry more than one wife- be declared unconstitutional since it violates the right to equality guaranteed in the Constitution.

“The question of equality is a matter of perception. A balanced person will easily ensure that there is equality. For example when I have four wives; it was just as natural as someone with one. I know my day for family A, B, C and D,” Minister Rukutana argued.

The problem, he said, comes when some people get new wives and give them more attention than the old ones. “That is very dangerous and I never do it. Even if I feel like I am still attracted to that new one, I will still follow the same routine for the old ones so that they do not feel sidelined. As I said, it is a question of principle and when you get into that principle and you adhere to it, becomes ordinary.”

However, the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), the organisation that brings together women’s groups does not share Mr Rukutana’s views.
They say polygamy is an abuse of women’s rights.

“It’s about the person. As much as we might be sympathetic to our Muslim brothers and sisters who support it, we should look at the pain it causes the woman,” says Ms Rita Aciro, the national coordinator of Uwonet.
Ms Aciro notes that women in polygamous marriages live in oppression and cannot make independent decisions on issues that concern them including their health and welfare.

“Their sexuality is often controlled by the men and the women have almost no say in such a home. Yet despite all that, women take responsibility of looking after the children. This has social economic implications on them,” Ms Aciro said. But according to Mr Rukutana, polygamy cannot be blamed for irresponsible men who won’t look after children born out of wedlock.

In fact he picked on Christmas as his best moment as a polygamous dad.
“My best moment is at Christmas when I am at my place in Ntungamo when all my children are at one place, some jumping all over me and my wives. When one of my wives is preparing breakfast, the others will be doing other chores. That’s my best moment in life,” Mr Rukutana further argues.
“I don’t look for ‘side dishes’. If there’s zero-grazing, I zero within those four. People will say that it’s risky in these times of diseases like HIV but even a person in a monogamous relationship will go out.”
But according to Apac Woman Member of Parliament, Ms Betty Amongi, the banning of polygamy has been long overdue.

“Polygamy has reduced women to subordinates. Many men have used women as a mechanism to get wealth. When they have many wives, they use them as a tool for labour. This is degrading treatment that must end,” said Ms Amongi.

She said while the Muslim fraternity bases its arguments on Islamic laws governing marriage, many African countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco don’t support polygamy.

Islamic faith
Some Muslim legislators like Kyadondo South MP Issa Kikungwe are outraged by the petition which proposes to ban polygamous marriages and have vowed to fight it to the end.

According to Mr Kikungwe, there is nothing wrong with a man marrying as many as four wives as long as he has the capacity to take care of them
“If we are going to say that every man should have one wife, some women might never know what marriage is because in Uganda we have more women than men. We need polygamy so that every woman can get a husband,” said Mr Kigungwe, who despite being Muslim is married to one wife.

Mr Kikungwe said asking the Constitutional Court to outlaw polygamy is as good as amending the Quran that allows Muslim men to marry as many as four wives. Obongi County MP, Hassan Fungaroo agrees. “When you say a man should marry only one wife, yet we know that we have more women in this country, what happens to the balance of women?” he questioned.

Mr Fungaroo said contrary to arguments fronted by women rights activists that polygamy is a violation of women’s rights, many women in polygamous marriages are “happy’’ to be in such relationships. But Ms Hope Turyasingura, a women’s rights activist with the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention doesn’t think there are women who are happy to be in polygamous marriages.

“Why did one of Rukutana’s wives allegedly pour acid on her co-wife if they are happy? Even if the Quran talks of marrying up to four wives, there are stringent ground rules put in place including loving them equally, I don’t think that is happening,” said Ms Turyasingura. However, Mr Rukutana who didn’t want to comment on the matter because it is being investigated had this to say.

“Should it be found that it is true, I would not attribute it to polygamy because the majority of these cases being investigated are not of people in polygamous relationships. The majority of acid attacks are because of jealousy. My wife was running most of my estates, she had can never be said it was polygamy,” Mr Rukutana shot back.

HIV/Aids fear
Ms Turyasingura said having polygamous marriages outlawed is part of the women’s struggle for sexual autonomy. “In this day of HIV/Aids, if you have a man with many wives, he is going to infect all of them with HIV/Aids. What will then happen to their children? Already in polygamous marriages, women have been abandoned by their spouses,” she said.

Erias Lukwago, the Kampala Central Member of Parliament believes that people should not be compelled to follow what they do not subscribe to.
“If the Muslim faith allows men to take on more than one wife, then that should be it,” he said.

As court hears the Mifumi petition, it is clear that the battle to have polygamy declared unconstitutional is not going to be an easy one especially with some religious leaders and traditionalist opposing it.

What God has put together might be hard for man to put asunder.

*Reverend Godffrey Nsubuga of Revival Church:
" The Bible has been a problem with polygamy. If you look at the lives of Abraham- he got a problem when he got another wife. Even for Isaac and David. Objectively, marriage was meant for one man and wife for stability."

* Cleopatra Koheirwe, African Woman Magazine :
" Polygamy is not something I have thought about. I just don’t think that I can ever share my man with anyone. I guess I am the jealous type. Besides there are so many sexually transmitted diseases.

* Andrew L. Ssebagala, CEO House of Talent:
"Principles of Christianity demand that a man has one wife so in such a scenario I wouldn’t subscribe to polygamy. However, I respect those who practice it because of their faith. We grew up in polygamous families."

* Brenda Mawenu, Public Relations, Moringa:
" I am an African who has been exposed to polygamy. If I were barren, I would share my man because he would need children. I would not like to lose him 100 per cent but I would need to bring the joy he needs as a father."

* Sylver Kyagulanyi, songwriter/artiste:
" As a Christian, my teachings do not encourage polygamy but with the present trends in society where everything is commercialised usually it is for one’s good to have one partner because it becomes easier to develop."

* Immaculate Kirabo, usher with a events management company :
" I don’t support polygamy because of the many sexually transmitted diseases. When you have more than one woman, transmission is fast. Perhaps without diseases I would change my position if the man would be faithful."

* Ras B. Ssali, Events Manager:
" It depends, we are from different cultures. Others use religion to campaign against it. But there are some religions that embrace polygamy. But personally I am not against it. I am not yet married. However, I am committed."