KAMPALA, Uganda — The suspicion of a third wife was planted in Irene Atenyo’s mind when her husband could not account for his most recent pay.
When she confronted him, he beat her “like an animal” and briefly kicked her out, she said. She winced as she recalled his confession days later of being involved with a student.
“My fear is I am home settled, being faithful to an unfaithful man, but who knows what kind of disease he will carry for me home?” the 27-year-old fruit vendor in Uganda’s capital told The Associated Press.
She is not alone. Millions of women across sub-Saharan Africa are still living in the complex relationships of polygamy, a centuries-old practice once the norm among African men seeking large families to cultivate the land.
According to the United Nations, which opposes the practice, polygamy was legal or generally accepted in 33 countries, 25 of them in Africa, as of 2009.
Campaigners urge governments to enact laws that protect women’s dignity and reject any religious argument for polygamy, saying the practice shackles women and often worsens the risk of disease and poverty.
There hasn’t been much success.
A panel of judges last month rejected a petition to have polygamy declared unconstitutional in Uganda, where it is permissible for Muslims and those in customary marriages sealed with the traditional payment of bride price but not for those seeking Christian or civil unions.
Neighbouring Kenya legalized polygamous unions for men in 2014 with overwhelming support from male lawmakers, as the majority leader argued that the biblical David and Solomon “never consulted anybody” when choosing multiple partners.
In South Africa, where former president Jacob Zuma has four wives, polygamy has long been legal under customary arrangements.
And Tanzanian President John Magufuli actively encourages polygamy, citing the 10 million more women than men in his country. In February he told men to marry “two or more wives” to reduce the number of single women.
Polygamy is still rampant in many countries in the Horn of Africa and East Africa even as the practice loses popularity in Muslim-majority communities of North Africa, said Hala al-Karib, a Sudanese activist who runs the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, a network of civil society groups.
“Polygamy is contributing to massive chaos,” she said. “It really victimizes children and their mothers.” And it can fuel conflict: In war-ravaged South Sudan, where polygamy is commonly practiced, the raiding of cattle to pay bride prices can inflame ethnic tensions.
Women’s rights activists say the entrenched patriarchy that encourages practices such as polygamy is a major reason why the world’s poorest continent now accounts for most of the growth in the global population.
“Demand for children is higher on average in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region,” with the fertility rate around 5.1 births per woman, a United Nations report released this month says.
Polygamy’s issues are often dramatized by Nollywood, Nigeria’s booming film industry that is popular across the continent, with lurid tales of witchcraft and murder.
In real life, Ugandan newspapers often report tales of co-wives attacking each other, sometimes with acid or other chemicals that leave the victim’s face horribly burned. Some co-wives reportedly compete to have as many children as possible in hopes of winning the favour of the man’s family, especially if there is substantial land to be inherited.
The Ugandan organization whose petition against polygamy was rejected, MIFUMI, says it plans to file a new challenge on the grounds that the practice undermines women’s dignity.
Polygamy is cited in half of the 2,000 to 3,000 cases of domestic violence handled by the organization each year, said Patrick Ndira, its deputy executive director.
“We think that polygamy is the factor that underscores discrimination between men and women,” Ndira said. “The women don’t have any recourse if a man decides to become polygamous.”
Yusuf Nsibambi with the Uganda Muslim Lawyers Association said the group would oppose any legal challenge to polygamy by asserting religious rights as Muslims.
Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a lawyer leading MIFUMI’s legal efforts, said religious arguments mask deep-seated patriarchy in African societies.
“Here the Muslims who practice polygamy, they do so largely because they are African,” Rwakafuuzi said. “It is just Africanist culture. They are hiding behind Islam.”
Atenyo, who recently discovered the potential third wife, said she felt compelled to confront her rival but their phone conversation ended abruptly when the other woman said she needed the money too.
“I was in shock. Sometimes I wonder if I am not beautiful. But how can I be beautiful when I spend hours under the scorching sun vending on the streets?” Atenyo said. “I have suffered in this polygamous marriage and I would not wish for any other woman to go through it.”
She worries that her husband, a Christian man, will one day abandon the family altogether as he seeks younger brides. His second wife recently left temporarily while citing neglect, Atenyo said.
“Your co-wife can be brought in anytime, and so if you are not sharp you can leave with a paper bag,” she said. “Nowadays I vend in order to save some money for security, in case he comes with another wife.”