Jenah House and Dr. Darren Hawkins, Political Science Department
Do the presence and legalization of polygamous relationships affect domestic violence in developing countries? While there is some evidence that polygamous relationships influence domestic violence rates, present research on the subject is sparse. Even less discussed in the field is how the legalization of polygamy affects domestic violence. My research suggests that not only does polygamy influence domestic violence levels in the home, but that domestic violence rates vary based on the legality of polygamy. If the legalization and practice of polygamy together affect domestic violence, this will open up discussion on the viability and legality of polygamy within states—and potentially how those are a measure of larger cultural attitudes about the status of women that affect levels of domestic violence.
25% of Nigerian women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their husbands or partners (National Population Commission 2013, 314). No country is free from domestic violence, but understanding the factors that lead to it is an important step in creating policies that help prevent domestic violence. In the case of Nigeria–where domestic violence is a clear problem–characteristics like age, relationship status, place of residence, and education all seem to factor into how likely a woman is to experience this violence. Many factors should certainly be considered, but the scarcity of research regarding polygamy and its legalization has pushed me to focus on these two factors.
My theory hinged on a combination of several cultural studies conducted in the past. These studies hinted that the recognition of polygamy may be indicative of a larger society which normatively accepts the lower status and unequal treatment of women (both legally and culturally) and thus is more likely to be accepting of violence against women.
I specifically looked at this effect within a single less developed country–Nigeria–in order to mitigate many cultural aspects that may affect these results and our analysis. Nigeria is a particularly interesting country because the legalization of polygamy is not prevalent throughout the state. Twelve of Nigeria’s thirty-six provinces have legalized polygamy since 2001. As mentioned previously, these are predominantly Muslim states, whose governments recognize polygamy as outlined under Sharia law. These laws have now been in place long enough to obtain a reasonable measure of how polygyny might be related to domestic violence.
In 2013, The Demographic and Health Surveys interviewed over 28,000 Nigerian women about their experiences with domestic violence. They ask a battery of questions about physical, emotional, and sexual violence (e.g. “Does your partner ever: ‘Threaten to hurt or harm you or someone close to you?’ ‘Slap you?’ ‘Force you with threats or in any other way to perform sexual acts you did not want to?’”). From their battery of 13 questions, I created a measure indicating whether women in the survey had ever experienced domestic violence at the hands of a partner or spouse. I also broke that measure down by levels of reported physical violence, emotional violence, and sexual violence. In doing an analysis of factors that affect domestic violence, I found that many them should be considered, including both polygamy and its legislation within the state.
Below is a figure of all the factors that significantly influenced the likelihood that a woman had reported experiencing domestic violence by her most recent spouse (former or current). Although most factors seem to be spot on in the expected direction, there is also a relationship between polygamy and its legalization just the opposite of what my theory suggested. Reported past domestic violence decreased with the presence of polygamy and its legalization. Women in a polygamous union were nearly 4% less likely to report experiencing domestic violence by their spouse or partner–a small but statistically significant difference. While the difference is minimal, it runs contrary to the expected direction. The analysis also predicts a 7% decrease in reported domestic violence for women who live in a state where polygamy is legalized.
While this may be surprising, there are several possible explanations. One is that women in polygamous relationships may have more collective bargaining power that they would have in a monogamous relationship in a patriarchal, less developed country. Another is that men in polygamous relationships in Nigeria may generally be less likely to exercise retaliatory control when they have multiple wives. It is also possible that women in polygamous relationships may be uniquely less likely to report past domestic violence in an interview.
Conclusions about why these trends exist would require extensive qualitative research. However, this research suggests that the relationship between polygamy and domestic violence has many holes that need to be filled by future research. My project highlights that need and encourages further research to better understand this trend.