Legal status of polygamy
The legal status of polygamy (also known as bigamy where forbidden) varies from country to country. A majority of the world's countries and nearly all of the world's developed nations do not permit polygamy, and there have been growing calls for the abolition of polygyny in many developing countries. In the countries which do not permit polygamy, a person who marries a person while still being lawfully married to another commits bigamy. In all cases, the second marriage is considered legally null and void. Besides the second and subsequent marriages being void, the bigamist is also liable to other penalties, which also vary between jurisdictions.
Polygyny, the practice of one husband taking multiple wives, has been condemned as a form of human rights abuse. Many international human rights organisations, as well as women's rights groups in many countries, have called for its abolition. In 2000, the United Nations Human Rights Committee considered polygamy (probably limited to polygyny) a violation of the internationally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the grounds that it violates the dignity of women, and recommended it be made illegal in all states.
- 1 Countries that recognize polygamous marriages
- 2 Examples around the world
- 3 Notable legislation
- 4 References
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, either dominated by Muslim and/or in the African continent. In the Middle Eastern region, polygamy is widespread with the exception of Israel, Turkey and Tunisia. 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, by allowing 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 Islamic Sharia law.
The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand permit some benefits for polygamous marriages performed in other countries. India and Sri Lanka, allow polygamous marriages only among Muslim citizens. 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 (also known 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.
United States: Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states.
From about 1847 to 1857, in what is now the United States state of Utah, many Mormons practiced polygamy in defiance of the widepread view in the rest of the US. The US federal government threatened war and forced the Mormons to make polygamy illegal through the vigorous enforcement of Acts of Congress such as the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally abolished the practice in 1890, in a document labeled 'The Manifesto'. Small Mormon groups, such as Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still practice polygamy and awareness has been increased through television dramas such as Big Love.
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 abolition law is indeed 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.
The decision was welcomed by the attorney general of British Columbia, and by a representative for the group Stop Polygamy in Canada. Likewise, according to the CBC news, some polyamorous groups in Canada expressed their relief, since Bauman had stated that the law shouldn't apply to them unless they decide to formalize their unions.
Women's rights were central to 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 sharia 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.
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.
Switzerland: Polygamy is illegal by law. But polygamous marriage conducted in another country may be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis.
United Kingdom: Foreign polygamous marriages grant some welfare benefits only, but this is being phased out with the introduction of Universal Credit. Polygamy is treated as bigamy if a second marriage (or civil partnership) 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 still commonly practised amongst some of the indigenous population, but 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 permissible if they are legally performed in a country that permits polygamy.
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.
Brazil – A legally married person or a married couple cohabiting with one or more sexual partner(s) is prohibited by law. Known as bigamy, it is punishable by 2 to six years jailtime, and is valid for every Brazilian citizen, including naturalized ones.
In May 5, 2011 long-term cohabitation between non-married persons, in one incident with a man and two women, known as união estável ("stable union"), was recognized as a family entity and granted all 112 rights of married couples – its only legal difference from marriage is that it does not change individual civil status from single to married. One of them, in Tupã, São Paulo, was registered as including a man and two women, as reported in August 2012. Doubts were thrown on its legality, as it was unclear whether it is in accordance with Brazilian law,. It has not, however, set any precedence, and higher Brazilian courts have not permitted the practice.
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|
|United Kingdom||1987 or earlier||Foreign marriages may receive benefits payments, being phased out|
|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|
|South Africa||1998||Customary marriage (civil recognition)||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|
|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.|
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