Polyandry the Focus of Debate During Webinar
The legalisation of polyandry was the centre of discussion during a webinar presented by UKZN’s International Office.
This follows a Green Paper discussion document on marriages issued by the South African Department of Home Affairs and published earlier this year in a process to make the institution of marriage inclusive, including the legalisation of polyandry.
Polyandry is a situation in which a woman is allowed to take on more than one husband.
The webinar was facilitated by UKZN Law student, Ms Lydia Mabhaudi, and panellists included senior lecturer in Applied Ethics, Dr Beatrice Okyere-Manu; KwaZulu-Natal Manager for the Commission for Gender Equality, Ms Zanele Ncwane; and UKZN alumnus and lecturer in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Cape Town, Dr Zamambo Mkhize.
Okyere-Manu said ethical implications involved in the legalisation of polyandry in South Africa centred on the six different polyandry marriages practised historically in most African countries, and those that still exist today.
She said polyandry still existed for various reasons but was practised in secrecy. Examples of a polyandry marriage that still exist include inheriting a widow of a deceased brother for the sake of raising children, and she said it is traditionally accepted and recognised for male siblings to father children for impotent brothers.
Okyere-Manu said some of the concerns raised around polyandry were the issue of lobola, cultural issues, the issue of paternity, the surname of the children, women taking up the role of a man as in polygamy, and if the husband would take the surname of the woman.
Okyere-Manu also examined the ethical implications and, considering the African perspective, said in most of her findings, people had interestingly argued that this was not an African practice.
However, Okyere-Manu argued that the status of women in marriages had not been adequately interrogated and that the ‘legacy of the gendered nature of our culture has not been dealt with properly.’ Polyandry posed a challenge that struck at the heart of patriarchy and diminished the dominance and control over women.
She said legalising it would not force anyone to take up the practice. ‘South Africa is a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural society, and this presents a challenge to our society.’
Ncwane said the Commission for Gender Equality was there to ensure that discussions broadly reached other sectors of society.
She clarified that the Green Paper did not only focus on polyandry but also examined monogamous marriages for opposite-sex spouses, polygamous and unrecognised customary marriages including the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim marriages, the registration of customary marriages, the solemnisation of marriages, the type of marriages people go into under the Marriages and Union Act, the consent to marriage and same-sex marriages.
Virtual discussions had been held on the Green Paper, but Ncwane said as the Gender Commission, they had requested an extension on the discussions so that other stakeholders could be included. It had been found that discussions did not reach people at the grassroots level and in rural areas where there was an issue about the age of consent. They proposed the issue of Ukuthwala practised in some areas to be declared as human trafficking. She encouraged UKZN academics to be part of the upcoming Home Affairs provincial discussions.
Regarding polyandry, Ncwane said she had noted that concerns came from mainly the religious and cultural settings because of the issue of giving women equal rights and power. She said men were always uncomfortable in discussions on the subject and their reasons mostly based on religion and culture. Ncwane said the Marriages Act sought to ensure all cultures were provided for.
Mkhize then explained that polyandry was commonly practised in Nepal and Benin. In Nepal, a woman marries several brothers, but only the eldest brother will be registered as the husband and father of the children. In Benin the chieftaincy is not gender-specific and a “woman chief” would be allowed to marry several men who would then impregnate women to have the chief’s children. Mkhize said: ‘In South Africa there are customary marriages in Limpopo where a married woman is allowed to take on more wives for various reasons.’
Mkhize noted that concerns raised against the legalisation of polyandry included the DNA of a child coming into question but said in African culture, children were considered part of the family regardless of blood relations. ‘Africans are about kinship and not blood relation.’
Another area of concern involved religious and cultural aspects, but Mkhize said that culture was fluid and dynamic and should shift with the times. She urged people to be honest when defending the legalisation of polyandry for women and highlighted that equality needed to be superior while cultural practices should be in line with the Bill of Rights.
Words: Sithembile Shabangu