Legal status of polygamy
Where permitted, polygamy exists in three forms: polygyny – where the family unit consists of one man and multiple wives; polyandry – where the family unit consists of one woman and multiple husbands; or group marriage – where the family unit consists of multiple husbands and multiple wives. Historically, all three practices have existed, but polygyny is by far the most common. Confusion arises when the broad term "polygamy" is used when a specific form of polygamy is being referred to, and most references to polygamy in practice is to polygyny. Most countries that permit polygamy permit only polygyny.
There are many countries which do not permit polygamy, and a person who marries in one of those countries a person while still being lawfully married to another commits the crime of bigamy. In all cases, the second marriage is considered legally null and void, and consent from a prior spouse makes no difference to the validity of the second marriage. In countries which outlaw polygamy some people may resort to common-law marriages. Almost all western countries prohibit polygamy, but several recognize polygamous marriages entered into in countries that permit them. Besides the second and subsequent marriages being void, the bigamist is also liable to other penalties, which also vary between jurisdictions.
Countries that recognize polygamous marriages 
|Legal status of polygamy|
|Recognized under civil law|
|Recognized in some regions|
|Foreign marriages recognized|
|Recognized under customary law|
|Status in other jurisdictions|
Polygamous marriages are recognized civilly in nearly fifty countries, mostly Muslim and African countries. In the Middle Eastern region, Israel, Turkey and Tunisia are notable exceptions. Almost a dozen countries that do not permit polygamous civil marriages recognize polygamous marriages under customary law, though in the eyes of the government, they are not considered to be genuine marriages. The single exception in North American region is the province of Saskatchewan Canada. There, the family law courts provide legal protection for polygyny or polyandry. In essence, that Canadian province authorizes simultaneous additional marital rights and obligations for already married persons, prior to married persons becoming divorced from existing spouses. All northern states in Nigeria recognize polygamous marriages, as these states are governed by Sharia law. Polygamy tends to be secular]] Arab states, such as Lebanon, which still allows for such unions.
The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand recognize polygamous unions performed in other countries that permit them. In other similar circumstances, India and Sri Lanka, on the other hand, allow only their Islamic citizens to legally join in polygamous marriages. Many Indians have converted to Islam in order to bypass such legal restrictions. Predominantly Christian nations usually do not allow polygamous unions, with a handful of exceptions being the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Zambia. Myanmar (frequently referred to as Burma) is also the only predominately Buddhist nation to allow for civil polygamous marriages, though such is rarely tolerated by the Burmese population.
The autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland in northern Somalia also recognize polygamy, as does the country's Transitional Federal Government itself, since the country is governed by Sharia law. The recently independent country of Southern Sudan also recognizes polygamy. The Palestinian territories — consisting of West Bank and Gaza Strip — permit polygamous unions for Muslim citizens of the territories. The practice continues in Bhutan  in various forms as it has since ancient times. It is also found in parts of Nepal, even despite its formal illegality in the country.
Examples around the world 
In most of the following examples, polygamy only refers to polygyny. Except when the converse is explicitly stated, either all kinds of polygamy are forbidden, or the only allowed form of polygamy is polygyny.
North America 
United States: The practice is illegal in all 50 states.
Over a century ago, citizens of the self-governing territory of what is present-day Utah were forced by the United States federal government to abandon the practice of polygamy through the vigorous enforcement of several Acts of Congress. They eventually complied. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally abolished the practice in 1890, in a document labeled 'The Manifesto'. Among American Muslims, a small minority of around 50,000 to 100,000 people are estimated to live in families with a husband maintaining an illegal polygamous relationship.
Canada: All forms of polygamy, and some informal multiple sexual relationships, are illegal by Section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Bigamy is banned by Section 290. However, for a long time, the law banning polygamy has not been efficient. As of January 2009, no person had been successfully prosecuted, i.e., convicted in over sixty years. In 2009, two acquittals prompted the attorney general of British Columbia to ask the Supreme Court of British Columbia whether challenging the law was consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and, if so, under what circumstances people can be legally punished for polygamy.
In November, 2011 the court released its 335 pages long decision, which was that the polygamy law indeed was constitutional, but that it should not be used to persecute minors for having taken part of a polygamous marriage. Chief Justice Robert Bauman conceded that there is a conflict between this law and some civil right principles, but stated that there are other and "more important" issues which in this case takes precedence. He wrote (as quoted by CBC news):
- "I have concluded that this case is essentially about harm. More specifically, Parliament's reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy. This includes harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage".
Bauman argued that there are cases where the "wives" (who may be rather young; sometimes as young as 12 years) are abducted and abused, but because they believe in a faith promoting polygamy, they are not willing to bring complaints to the authorities. He reasons that these offences sometimes may be stopped by applying anti-polygamy legislation. This judgement seems unaware that relationships between multiple men, to the exclusion of women and children, exist at all; thus the judgment maintains the criminalization of gay male polyamorous relationships. Canada continues to criminalize sexual encounters where more than two persons are present during anal intercourse, whether or not the multiple parties involved are plurally married or are legal strangers.
The decision was welcomed by the attorney general of BritishColumbia, and by a representative for the group Stop Polygamy in Canada. Likewise, according to the CBC news, some polyamorous people in Canada expressed their relief, since Bauman had stated that the law shouldn't apply to them unless they decide to formalize their unions. Many LGBTQ critics argued that abuse of various kinds should be persecuted by their respective laws, instead of criminalising all formalized liaisons between three or more consenting adults, and also found it strange that polyamorous liaisons remain ambiguously both legal and illegal. The appointed court amicus George MacIntosh was deliberating whether to appeal the decision.
- See the map and template for more in-depth information.
Mayotte: Considered to be de facto illegal since a referendum sponsored by France in March 2009, forcing the island to comply with French culture. However, pre-existing Muslim marriages are currently still valid.
Burkina Faso: Both Muslims and non-Muslims can join in polygamous unions under Burkina Faso law.
Côte d'Ivoire: Akin to the situation in Benin, polygamy and such marriages were outlawed, though previous marriages are still recognized.
Gabon: Both men and women can join in polygamous unions with the other gender under Gabonese law, although in practice only men do.
Nigeria: Recognized in all northern states, federal law recognizes polygamous unions under customary law.
Maldives: Permitted for all Muslim men with consent from the first wife, uncommon.
Malaysia: Permitted for all Muslim men, up to a maximum of 4 wives. Consent from the first wife is a requirement is most states, though some men circumvent this requirement by marrying their second or subsequent wives in other countries with lax polygamy laws, such as in Southern Thailand.
Indonesia: Legal, though heavily restricted.
Afghanistan: Legal, frequently practiced.
Mongolia: Possible legislation of polygamy has been debated in hopes that it would even out Mongolia's male and female population. However, there has been no formal debate in the government, rather within the public.
Iran: Legal with consent from the first wife, rarely practiced.
Pakistan; Permitted for Muslim men only, can have up to 4 wives at one time according to Islamic Law.
Singapore: Legal for Muslim men who can demonstrate the financial means to support all potential wives, with consent from existing wives, up to a maximum of 4 wives. Extremely rare in practice.
France: Civil marriage registry illegal, still there are no laws against a person living with more than one partner/spouse. Stricter immigration laws have been enforced due to various polygamous-related hassles with immigrants from Mali and other African nations that permit polygamy.
Poland: Illegal, punishable with prison time.
Germany: Illegal, punishable with fine or prison time up to three years.
Netherlands: Marriage between more than two individuals prohibited; however, a samenlevingscontract may include more than two partners.
United Kingdom: Illegal, foreign polygamous marriages grant some welfare benefits only. Polygamy is treated as bigamy if a second marriage is contracted in the United Kingdom. No legal recognition is extended to spouses of subsequent marriages after the first marriage is recognised even when subsequent marriages are contracted abroad.
Australia: Polygamy is generally legal within Australia, when the marriage is based around common-law (de facto) marriage, or religious/cultural marriage. Polygamy is still commonly practised amongst Australia's indigenous Aboriginal population. Polygamy based around state-sanctioned official marriage is illegal, and marriage to multiple spouses regardless of living circumstances would also be against the law as bigamy.
New Zealand: Polygamous marriages cannot be performed in New Zealand, but are recognised if they are legally performed in a country that permits polygamy.
South America 
In Brazil poligamy is prohibited by law. Bigamy is punishable by 2 to six years jailtime.
Status disputed or unclear 
Kenya – The legal code is presumed by many to prohibit legal recognition of polygamous unions, but other codes seem to mention otherwise. A bill is currently pending to legalize polygamy, known as "Marriage Bill 2007."
Swaziland – While some have thought that current laws could be interpreted to allow for legally-recognized polygamous unions, there is no legal recognition, still there are no laws against a man living with more than one woman, so the practice itself is not disallowed and even the king has thirteen spouses in 2010.
Notable legislation 
To permit polygamy 
The table below covers recent pieces of legislation that have been either debated, proposed or voted on; all of which concern a form of polygamous union. The table does not cover legislation that restricts polygamy.
|Country||Date||Polygamous union||Upper House||Lower house||President||Final
|Iraq||1963||Polygamous civil marriage (revoke of prohibitions)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Malawi||1994||Customary law (recognizes polygamous unions)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Libya||1998||Polygamous civil marriage (abolishes wife's right to consent/reject additional wives)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Namibia||2003||Customary law (recognizes polygamous unions)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Namibia||2004||Pension benefits to wives of a deceased president||-||Failed||-||No|
|Uganda||2005||Polygamous civil marriage (easing of laws; plus restrictions)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Kyrgyzstan||2007||Polygamous civil marriage||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|Kazakhstan||2007||Polygamous civil marriage||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|Uzbekistan||2007||Polygamous civil marriage||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|Tajikistan||2007||Polygamous civil marriage||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|Turkmenistan||2007||Polygamous civil marriage||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|Kazakhstan||June 2008||Polygamous civil marriage||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|United Kingdom||February 2008||Welfare benefits (of foreign marriages)||Yes|
|Iran||September 2008||Polygamous civil marriage (easing of laws)||Failed||-||-||-||No|
|Kenya||July 2009||Polygamous civil marriage||Pending||-||-||-|
|Namibia||July 2009||Polygamous civil marriage||Proposed||-||-||-|
|Russia||2009||Polygamous civil marriage||Proposed||-||-||-|
To outlaw polygamy 
|Country||Date||Prohibition type||Upper House||Lower house||President||Final
|United States||July 1862||Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which made polygamy a misdemeanor offense in US territories and other areas where the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction.||'||'||Signed||Yes|
|United States||March 1882||Edmunds Act, which reinforced Morrill by making polygamy a felony in the jurisdictions covered by Morrill; also prohibited "bigamous" or "unlawful cohabitation" as a misdemeanor offense, which removed the need to prove that actual marriages had occurred in order to obtain convictions on polygamy related charges.||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Turkestan ASSR (modern Kyrgyzstan)||October 1921||Outlaws polygamy||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Thailand||October 1935||Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriage||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|North Vietnam (modern Vietnam)||October 1950||Outlaws polygamy||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Syria||1953||Restrictions on polygamous marriage||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|India||1955||Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (Hindus only)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Tunisia||1956||Ban on polygamy; polygamous marriages||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Iraq||1959||Ban on polygamy; polygamous marriage||Passed||Passed||Signed||Revoked|
|Côte d'Ivoire||1964||New penal code outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (upholds existing)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|British Hong Kong (modern Hong Kong)||1971||Outlaws polygamy||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Eritrean People's Liberation Front (modern Eritrea)||1977||Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriage (districts under Sharia exempt)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Egypt||1979||Restrictions on polygamous marriage; ease of divorce laws||Passed; abrogated||-||-||-||No|
|Egypt||1985||Restrictions on polygamous marriage (less liberal)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|France||1993||Outlaws family reunion for polygamist immigrants||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Uganda||December 2003||Outlaws polygamy||Failed||-||-||No|
|Morocco||2003||Restrictions on polygamous marriage||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Benin||August 2004||New penal code outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (upholds existing)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Morocco||February 2005||Restrictions on polygamous marriage (heavy restrictions)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Uganda||July 2005||Outlaws polygamy||Failed||-||-||No|
|Indonesia||2007||Bans civil servants from living polygamously||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Morocco||May 2008||Restrictions on polygamous marriage (heavy restrictions)||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Uganda||June 2008||Outlaws polygamy||Failed||-||-||No|
|Iraqi Kurdistan||Nov. 2008||Abolishes polygamy except in selective circumstances||Passed||Passed||Signed||Yes|
|Mayotte||March 2009||Mahoran status referendum, 2009 (passage abolishes polygamy)||Territory-wide Referendum||Yes|
|Turkey||May 2009||Disallows polygamists from immigrating into the country||Yes|
|Indonesia||July 2009||Restrictions on polygamous marriage||Pending||Pending||-|
|Namibia||July 2009||Ban on polygamy & polygamous customary marriages||Proposed||-||-||-|
Recently proposed, failed, or pending efforts to limit polygamy 
|Malawi||A proposal to outlaw polygamy was defeated in 2008.|
|Uganda||Another bill that would outlaw polygamy in the country was defeated in the legislature in 2008.|
|Saudi Arabia||Women's groups within the United Nations have called on Saudi Arabia to outlaw polygamy. Most consider such a move extremely unlikely.|
|Egypt||The complete abolishment of polygamy in Egypt has been the discussion of numerous political debates.|
|France||Stricter sanctions against polygamist foreign residents have been implemented in attempt to battle polygamy within the immigrant community.|
|Indonesia||A proposal that would limit polygamy even further is being considered in the legislature.|
|Namibia||A bill that would ban polygamous unions from being recognized by customary law and additionally, outlaw all forms of polygamy, has been submitted to the legislature.|
|United States||A senator from Nevada has announced his intentions to introduce a bill that would create further sanctions against polygamy.|
|Indonesia||Feminist groups and individuals have stated their intent to work for the complete abolition of polygamy and ban polygamous marriage in the country.|
- Ethnographic Atlas Codebook derived from George P. Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas recording the marital composition of 1231 societies from 1960–1980
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- See Polygamy in India
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