Publication Date
June 1, 2017

“All of the customary and non-customary bases [of polygamous marriages] reflect the unequal power balance between men and women and the complementary division of resources and responsibilities which shape the gendered distribution of labour and social norms within each society.” 

This report shares the synthesised findings of research undertaken by Trócaire in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to better understand practices and experiences of polygamy. The research has two specific objectives: 1) to describe the form that polygamy takes in the areas under study and how it is understood at local level; and 2) to generate insights into the division of resources, responsibilities, attributes, capabilities, power and privilege within polygamous unions. The research findings address the motivations for men and women entering into a polygamous marriage and the power dynamics that prevail within these marriages which have critical impacts on women’s access to material resources, emotional support and well-being, and decision-making power over themselves and - where applicable - their children. The research is intended  to provide insights which can inform Trócaire programming in contexts in which polygamy is prevalent.  Two individual research reports were produced (see links below) and this report is a synthesis of the main themes and issues that emerged from these two reports. 
As explained in the report, the country level research used as its conceptual framework the social relations approach developed by Naila Kabeer in 1994, which provides an approach to conceptualise gender relations and how they determine men and women’s respective access to resources, responsibilities, attributes, capabilities, power and privilege within the household sphere and beyond. The research also applied Whitehead’s concept of conjugal contract, defined as the ‘terms on which husbands and wives exchange goods, incomes and services, including labour, within the household’ (Whitehead, 1981, 88). A key unit of analysis in this research is the node: an organisational form at family/kinship level, consisting of one man and the women with whom he has concurrent conjugal contracts.

Research was conducted using primary and secondary research methods. Data was collecting using three primary data collection tools: key informant interviews (KIIs), focus group discussions (FDGs) and in-depth interviews. In total, approximately 300 people participated in the research.

The following is a brief summary of some of the findings:

Overall, polygamy was found to be a common type of marriage within all research sites. It was generally socially accepted, although in DRC the Catholic Church was a vocal critic. In both DRC and Sierra Leone, it was common for polygamy to consist of one man and two to three wives. One important difference observed between the two sites is living arrangements within the node. In DRC wives were more likely to live in separate dwellings whereas in Sierra Leone wives most commonly shared one dwelling with their husband and children.

Conjugal contracts are embedded in wider gender relations

The research found that although husbands and wives negotiate the terms of exchange of their conjugal contracts on an ongoing basis, the foundation of this contract is influenced by the wider gender norms and power relations within each context. Conjugal contracts are deeply embedded in the cultural, religious, and economic context and any negotiation of the terms of exchange of the conjugal contract between husbands and wives cannot be separated from these contextual factors. Husbands are legally and socially considered ‘head of the household’, situating wives in a subordinate position.

In both research contexts marriage, especially for women, was both materially and socially important. Materially, women are typically dependent on their husbands for access to land for housing. Socially, women are primarily defined as mothers and wives, and there were social taboos attached to single women, who do not fulfil these gender roles.

Polygamy has a structuring effect on productive activity and allocations within and across the node

Both husbands and wives are expected to contribute towards the productive and reproductive activities of the node but husbands are expected to provide economic contributions to each of their wives in an equitable manner, although few women in both countries saw their husband’s contributions as equitable or sufficient for daily needs. In polygamous nodes wives must continually negotiate allocations with their husband, from a subordinate position and according to their relative bargaining power.

Most women in polygamous unions who participated in this study engaged in individual income generation activities (mainly through small businesses) and exercised a level of control over the use of resources generated from these activities; although their individual income was mainly spent on the personal consumption needs of themselves and their own children. The main difference was that women in the DRC were most likely to have separate farm plots and therefore higher levels of autonomy over the produce of their plots, whereas women in Sierra Leone farmed collectively with the husband and co-wives and were less likely to have control over the harvest.

Co-wife relations are complex

The study revealed that wives in polygamous unions are aware of, and sensitive to, their changing levels of influence within the household, and the implications of this for their access to their spouse and resources. Within polygamous unions, a wife’s influence is shaped by a variety of factors, including the nature of a wife’s relationship with her
husband and resources that she possesses or is perceived to possess.

The research also found that co-wife relations, like all relationships, are complex and fluid. They can range (and change) from cordial to acrimonious, depending on a number of factors, including the degree to which the woman herself feels secure within the marriage, as well as the extent to which a husband is perceived to be treating each wife equitably.

On the basis of the research findings, the report offers recommendations which are intended for Trócaire as well as programmers operating in polygamy-prevalent communities.  The following are just a brief outline of the recommendations:

1. Invest in sensitive qualitative analysis to explore social relations in polygamous unions - While in-depth research is not always feasible, programme design and monitoring should integrate sensitive and informed qualitative data collection and analysis to explore the social relations within polygamous unions.

2. Invest in robust gender, power and vulnerability analysis - The ways in which wives in polygamous marriages navigate and experience patriarchy must be carefully analysed and understood to identify potential vulnerabilities. A strong gender and power analysis will prevent fallacious assumptions and illuminate the complex ways in which vulnerability is generated or perpetuated within marriage.

3. Integrate community and household mapping into programming - The term ‘household’ is regularly used in development programming but is not clearly defined, and generates assumptions about the relations within it. Community and household mapping should be considered as an integral part of programming work, with the consent and awareness of programme participants and to ensure that every effort is made to mitigate potential conflict or harm.

4. Support enablers of women’s power - For each individual context, the sources of support - empowerment should be identified and reinforced. However, to avoid unintended consequences programmes must consider relations between spouses as well as issues of power, agency and control over resources, and aim to support transformation of inequitable power relations.

5. Mitigate harm and conflict within nodes - The research has shown how external resources, such as contribution from the husband and income derived from women’s economic activity, can disrupt co-wife relations as it plays with the delicate power relations that exist between co-wives. On the basis of the community and household mapping and the analysis described in recommendation 3, strategies to mitigate unintended harm should also be incorporated to build consensus and support between wives or to reduce/resolve conflict. Any conflict mitigation strategies should be empowering to all women in the
household, while prioritising the balance of power between men and women.

For individual country studies, see:

Understanding Women’s Lives in Polygamous Marriages: Exploring Community Perspectives in DRC
Understanding Women’s Lives in Polygamous Marriages: Exploring Community Perspectives in Sierra Leone & DRC


Trócaire website on August 24 2017.