• Lucy Brock

Polygamy: A Breeding Ground for Warfare?

Photo by the United Nations on Flickr

Recently, the London School of Economics published an interesting study showing a correlation between countries with high rates of polygamous marriages and countries that are politically unstable and prone to civil war (Financial Express). While some may try to excuse this as a strange coincidence, the LSE study supported its findings by delving into the particular effects of polygamy on a society, providing evidence on how some of the social ramifications of this practice can ultimately affect the stability of the political state. Indeed, the top twenty most fragile states in the world have moderate to widespread polygamy (M.B.).

Polygamous regions of Haiti and Indonesia have been identified as being most turbulent, and in South Sudan, there is much political unrest and frequent uprisings within local communities (M.B.). While the Sudanese blame corrupt politicians and greedy neighbours for the violence and instability of their state, the LSE study argues that these issues ultimately arise as consequences of widespread polygamy (M.B.). About 40% of marriages in South Sudan involve multiple wives (The Economist). Most of these polygamous societies are patrilineal, and brides relocate to live with their husbands’ families after marriage (The Economist). Additionally, the groom’s families pay a “bride-price” to the bride’s family, which is supposed to cover the cost of what it took to raise the bride (The Economist). These bride-prices are often calculated using livestock as metric, and can range anywhere from 30-300 cattle (M.B.).

The ramifications of these polygamous marriages become clear when we consider the wealth disparities in regions such as South Sudan. Rich men can be expected to have as many wives as they can afford (The Economist). Therefore, if the wealthiest 10% of men marry four women, the poorest 30% of men are left without brides (Financial Express). In many of these societies, to be accepted as a “man” it is vital to marry and produce offspring (M.B.). Polygamy thus produces a significant number of social outcasts (M.B.). Furthermore, polygamy creates a shortage of brides which then inflates the bride-price, making it even more difficult for young or poorer men to find wives (M.B.). This results in many men marrying much later in life, once they have accumulated enough wealth for the bride-price. Women and young girls, on the other hand, are considered “old women” if not married by the time they’re twenty (The Economist).

In order to ensure they have enough cattle for the bride-price, many men turn to thieving or even join terrorist organizations. Two researchers, Valerie Hudson and Hilary Matfess, from Texas A&M University and Yale respectively, found that a high bride-price is “critical” in “predisposing young men to become involved in organized group violence for political purposes” (M.B.). A member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organization in South Asia who was hanged for his participation in the Mumbai attacks in 2008, said he joined the organization because it promised to pay for his siblings’ marriages (The Economist). Similarly, in Nigeria, extremist terrorist group Boko Haram is known to arrange marriages for its recruits (The Economist). Unfortunately, those who turn instead to thieving may not be leading safer lifestyles. Cattle raids are common and bloody in Sudan, killing thousands of Sudanese every year (The Economist). A cattle-herder in Wau, a South Sudan city, has said, “When you have cows, the first thing you do is get a gun. If you don’t have a gun, people will take your cows” (The Economist).

Some of these supposed consequences of polygamy may be caused by factors that are linked with polygamous communities but are not inherent to polygamy itself. For example, the idea of a “bride-price,” is simply not conducive to equal relationships as it implies ownership over the bride. Furthermore, ideas of what it means to be a “man” in certain societies and the requirements that go along with definitions of “manhood” could be explored as the root to the instability of these states instead of polygamy. However there will always be a problem with polygamy at a demographic level if only polygyny (i.e. one husband and multiple wives) is allowed. In polygamous Mormon enclaves in America, older male community leaders will forcibly expel younger males for trivial offences, simply so these older men can continue to marry younger women (The Economist). This is somewhat less destabilizing simply because these young men can join other nearby communities, which is not an option for young Sudanese men.

In conclusion, widespread practices of polygamy often produce a situation in which there is a shortage of brides which ostracises some members of a community. This can lead many rejected suitors to resort to desperate measures to be accepted back into society. There are various reasons why polygamy is still endorsed in these countries. In polygamous communities in Egypt, there is a misconception that there’s a shortage of young men (Financial Express). Apart from this, there has always been the idea that polygamy saves women from ever having to go unmarried without anyone to take care of them, and even women who can’t give birth would still be able to participate in marital life (Financial Express). If the consequences laid out in this article are accepted as indeed resulting from polygamy, then the regions that still promote these unions must think long and hard about whether the stability of their state can handle such practices.



“The Link between Polygamy and War.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 19 Dec. 2017, www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2017/12/19/the-link-between-polygamy-and-war.

“Does Polygamy Have Strong Links with Civil War? What LSE Study Revealed.” The Financial Express, हिन्दी, 22 Mar. 2018, www.financialexpress.com/opinion/does-polygamy-have-strong-links-with-civil-war-what-lse-study-revealed/1108269/.

M.B. “Why Polygamy Breeds Civil War.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 19 Mar. 2018, www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/03/19/why-polygamy-breeds-civil-war.

1,920 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All