Legal status of polygamy
In general, polygamy is legal in about 25% of countries[Note 1] in the form of polygyny, the practice of one husband having two or more concurrent wives. Legal polyandry, the practice of one wife having two or more concurrent husbands, is much less common. Legal group marriage, the practice of concurrent marriages amongst multiple participants often with multiple participants of each gender,[Note 2] is also extremely uncommon. Some countries legally allow polygyny only among their Muslim population. A majority of the world's countries and nearly all of the world's developed nations do not permit polygamy, and there have been calls for the abolition of polygyny in many developing countries.
- 1 Penalties
- 2 Human rights
- 3 Countries that recognize polygamous marriages
- 4 Polygyny and polyandry around the world
- 5 Notable legislation
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
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 such 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 vary between jurisdictions.
Polygyny has been described as a form of human rights abuse. Many international human rights organizations, 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.
Countries that recognize polygamous marriages
Nearly fifty countries permit polygamous marriages to be performed within their jurisdiction. These are either Muslim countries or in Africa. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, polygyny 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, the marriages are not considered genuine. The single exception in North America is the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, which allows simultaneous, additional marital rights and obligations for already married persons, prior to married persons becoming divorced from their existing spouse. All the northern states in Nigeria governed by Islamic Sharia law recognize polygamous marriages.
The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand permit some benefits for spouses of polygamous marriages performed in other countries. India[Note 3] 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 polygamy, with a handful of exceptions such as the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Zambia. Myanmar (formally known as Burma) is also the only predominately Buddhist nation to allow for civil polygamous marriages.
Pakistan allows a man to marry up to 4 wives at the same time, provided that marriage is conducted with the permission of existing wife/wives.
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.
Polygyny and polyandry around the world
In most of the following examples, polygamy only refers to polygyny. Except when polyandry is explicitly stated, either all kinds of polygamy are forbidden, or the only allowed form of polygamy is polygyny.
Mayotte: Considered to be de facto illegal since a referendum sponsored by France in March 2009, forcing the island to comply with the French laws. 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.
Ghana: Illegal under civil law, but recognized under customary law and Sharia law.
Nigeria: Recognized in all northern sharia states, federal law recognizes polygamous unions under customary law.
Bangladesh: Legal, though heavily restricted and the practice is rapidly declining.
Maldives: Permitted for all Muslim men with consent from the first wife.
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.
Nepal: Criminalized with sentence of one to three years and fine up to Rs 25,000. However, the second marriage is not annulled and once the completion of the sentence, the second wife carries equal footing as the first one. Even the government pension provided to the wife of the retired government employee after his death is split by the government.
Philippines Permitted for Muslim men only. Others face six to twelve years of imprisonment.
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.
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.
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.
Poland: Illegal, punishable with prison time.
Romania: Bigamy, defined as marriage conducted by a person which is already married, is punishable by up to 2 years in prison or fine. Knowingly marrying a married person is punishable by up to 1 year in prison or by fine.
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.
United States: Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states.
From about 1847 to 1857, in what is now the state of Utah, many Mormons practiced polygamy in defiance of the widespread view in the rest of the US. The US federal government threatened The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and made polygamy illegal through the enforcement of Acts of Congress such as the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. The LDS Church formally abolished the practice in 1890, in a document labeled 'The Manifesto'. Small splinter groups from the LDS Church, such as Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Apostolic United Brethren still practice polygamy and awareness has been increased through television dramas such as Big Love and reality shows such as Sister Wives.
Canada: All forms of polygamy, and some informal multiple sexual relationships, are illegal under section 293 of the Criminal Code. 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 on polygamy charges, arising out of the town of Bountiful, British Columbia, prompted the government of British Columbia to pose a reference question to the Supreme Court of British Columbia (i.e., the superior trial court). The reference questions asked if criminalisation of polygamy was consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and, if so, under what circumstances could people be legally punished for polygamy.
In November 2011 the court released its 335 page long decision, which was that the criminal offence of polygamy is indeed constitutional, but that it should not be used to prosecute 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 take 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.
Australia: Polygamous marriages cannot be performed in Australia, but polygamous relationships are still common within some indigenous Australian communities. Polygamous marriages entered into abroad are recognised for limited purposes only.
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
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 two to six years of imprisonment, and is valid for every Brazilian citizen, including naturalized ones.
In May 5, 2011 long-term cohabitation between non-married persons, known as união estável ("stable union"), was extended to same-sex couples, 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 such uniões estáveis, 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.
A second união estável-bound trio took place in the city of Rio de Janeiro, this time between three women, in October 2015. Unlike in the 2012 case, same-sex marriage in Brazil has been legalized ever since, and the legal situation in Brazil, in respect to the expansion of what is legally considered a family, is reported by the notary herself to be increasingly based on the principles of human dignity, plurality, and legal openness to the continuous development of society and culture, as well as the fact that, in Brazilian civil law, things that are not prohibited by the law can be argued to be allowed. However, doubts were again thrown on the legality of such a union, due to how both the continuous legal and social hegemony of monogamy in Brazil, and its law prohibiting bigamy in marriage, will affect jurisprudence.
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||Head of State||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 ||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|
|Namibia||July 2009||Polygamous civil marriage||Proposed||-||-||-||-|
|Russia||2009||Polygamous civil marriage||Proposed||-||-||-||-|
|Kenya||March 2014||Polygamous civil marriage||Passed||-||-||-||Yes|
To outlaw polygamy
|Country||Date||Prohibition type||Upper House||Lower House||Head of State||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[not in citation given]||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||Senator Harry Reid 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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