Polygamy in Igbo Culture

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The Developing Economies, XXXV-3 (September 1997): 293–327 –––––––––––––––––––––––––– The first author would like to express her gratitude for the advice and help of Mr. John Simons, Professor John Cleland, and the staff at the Center for Population Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London. The second author is grateful to the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Award No. 410-87-0704). We are also thankful to the helpful comments of the three referees. FACTORS ON POLYGAMY IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA:

OLYGAMY in sub-Saharan Africa is not only a type of marriage but also a value system. Its prevalence as a type of marriage has declined substantially in the southern part of the region where the adoptions of plow cultivation and commercial livestock raising, as the basic economic activity, have reduced the importance of the participation of female laborers and hence have reduced the incentive to have multiple wives (Boserup 1970; Kuper 1985; Timaeus and Graham 1989). As a value system, it has been highly resistant to the competition of the imported ideology of monogamy and to the impacts of various structural changes (e.g., the transition from subsistence to a money economy and urbanization). As a reflection of the persistency of this value system, the decline in polygamous unions in the urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa has been accompanied by the growth of various forms of multiple and/or serial informal marriages which involve rather irregular “girl friends” and somewhat regular “outside wives” (Karanja 1994; Mann 1994).

In addition to making the control of sexually transmitted diseases difficult (Caldwell, Caldwell, and Orubuloye 1992), the culture of polygamy also helps maintain a very high fertility level. It has thus contributed to the explosive population growth in sub-Saharan...