What purpose does polygamy serve in 2011?

I was thinking about polygamy the other day and wondering what possible justification there can be for it in contemporary African society. I am writing here as someone who has been an urban-dweller my whole life so bear this in mind as the perspective I’m bringing to the topic.

So, back to the point. One could make an argument for the usefulness and maybe even desirability of polygamy in older African societies. Where marriage was very much about property and women tended to have less of it, any kind of arrangement that gave a woman guaranteed access to property would be quite welcome even if it meant having to share it with other women in the same household. Especially, seeing as most men that could afford to take more than one wife would have had a good amount of property to begin with. So from that starting point, it would make sense for a woman to jump at the chance for that kind of marriage.

But fast-forward some decades into the late 20th and early 21st century and we have a society where the conditions that once made polygamy acceptable and desirable no longer exist to the same extent, particularly not in large cities. Acquiring property is no longer the primary driving force behind marriage. Women now have a much better opportunity for getting an education and a job that can meet their daily needs. So why do they continue to participate in polygamous marriages? What is the logic behind it now?

This question really puzzles me because where I have seen polygamy amongst city dwellers in Nigeria, the women were people who at least had other options in life. They were not stuck and trying to find a way out of poverty, they were usually quite young and attractive which is why they caught the eye of the rich older men in the first place and often enough, they had a decent quality of education. So for someone in this position, I have to wonder why becoming an nth wife makes more sense than another arrangement such as being an only wife or not being a wife at all, especially when there are significant downsides to the nth wife arrangement, not least of which is constant fighting for resources and attention for yourself and your children.

Any thoughts on the matter?


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