Development Discourse and Practice: Female Education, the Law and the Place of Polygyny

The article below was written by Evam Kofi Glover for the University of Bayreuth’s African Studies Working Papers no. 13 (2015) and has been published at ETE with his permission. More information on his article can be found here. 

Development practice over recent years prioritized empowerment of women through education for instrumentality and capacity building. In Ghana, diverse strategies including encouraging tertiary education and leadership in women were to ensure balance in nation building. However, much as this intervention promises great prospects, there is hardly any systematic study about its significance in relation to implications for the cultural goal of marriage and/or child birth. I contend that the persistence of polygyny among the middle-class is, among other things, due to its relevance for stabilizing the society in relation to the latent functions of higher formal education and professional training that inadvertently introduce marriage squeeze among middle-class women. Development discourse treats the situation as a phase and ‘transitional cost’ expected to fade away with institutional dynamics. Its effect on women may be open to debate but its persistence among the middle class registers a dimension that needs critical analysis. In some cases, its practice verges on practical implications for law enforcement against bigamy. In the circumstance where the law is seen as pliable, the situation engenders a number of blurred and confusing effects that deepen the sense of ambiguity and sometimes outcomes become contradictory.

Keywords: polygyny, female education, marriage squeeze, Ghana


The debate over marriage type specifically polygyny [1] and the law has a very long history in Ghana. Even though polygyny is legal, it is generally frowned upon especially among the middle-class (Zeitzen, 2008 p. 8). The literature shows that theoretical insights by social scientists discussing polygyny in Africa have been shifting over time in line with the social dynamics in marriage and family studies. During the 1960s and 1970s for example, modernization theorists espoused the model of an evolutionary transition from a ‘pre-modern’ or ‘traditional’ to a ‘modern’ era. In this, teleological accounts were given of a progressive, upward movement from “tradition to modernity” (cf. Alber & Bochow, 2011) [2]. The major prerequisite for this ‘progress’ was the removal of specifically targeted cultural and social barriers that were regarded as impediments in the smooth running of the social system (Geschiere, Meyer & Pels, 2008 p. 1). Development discourse assumed generally, for example, that polygyny was rooted in poor formal education and lack of economic emancipation of women (Goode, 1963, 1964). Arguments were therefore advanced concerning the trends of polygyny in Africa and the prediction that with more women in higher education and professions, as well as increasing ‘urbanization’, polygyny was to disappear (Goldthorpe, 1984; Goode, 1963; Kerr, et al., 1973; Lewis, 1982). It presupposes that even where polygyny continues to exist among middle-class women, it could be glossed over as ad-hoc ‘interim’ occurrence, a ‘phase’ in the process and therefore a systemic ‘transitional cost’ on the path to the ultimate goal.

Current scholarship however debunks this argument for postmodernist concerns that point to an increasingly fluid, dispersed and discursively created world (Alber & Bochow 2011 p. 19). Notwithstanding this however, a casual overview shows that the unilinear view has not completely waned within current development thinking. Dominant development discourse today continues to see polygyny specifically as one of those ‘backward’ internal structures that cause underdevelopment (see WiLDAF/FeDDAF 2006). In feminist rhetoric in Ghana, for example, polygyny is couched in discriminatory and oppressive assumptions as against the ‘dignity of women’, double-standards of society, injustice and seen to “increase women’s insecurity and vulnerability in married life” (WiLDAF/FeDDAF, 2006). In the general recommendations of the United Nations committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UN, 2000), this notion is formally endorsed. The Convention states under General Recommendation (Para.24) that:

“(…) equality of treatment with regard to the right to marry implies that polygamy [3] is incompatible with this principle. Polygamy violates the dignity of women. It is an inadmissible discrimination against women. Consequently, it should be definitely abolished wherever it continues to exist. (UN 2000 Para. 24).

The UN (2000 Para. 39) therefore directs that the registration of all marriages should be enforced “…thereby ensure compliance with the Convention and establish equality between partners (…), prohibition of bigamy and polygamy (…).” In the Human Rights perspective therefore, polygyny is a misfit in the world. Its existence is an anomaly, an indication of ill-conceived laws that create bias against women and a form of institutional failure. Contrary to this notion, other scholarly works, however, observe that polygyny in wider African setting may not be declining as anticipated but rather metamorphosing to fit the demands of the emerging ‘modern’ society (Clignet & Sween, 1974; Karanja, 1994; Locoh, 1994; Mann, 1994; Notermans, 2002). My aim in this paper is to explore the meaning of polygyny to middle-class women who practice it and to gauge its implications from an institutional perspective. The paper therefore takes as its point of departure the assumption that social institutions exist for framing a functioning society (Bettinger, 1996 p. 851) but in exerting this control, social institutions adapt to social realities to maximize their dynamic role.

The general study [4] of which this paper is an excerpt was based on multi-local ethnography in Ghana. It was a 12-month long fieldwork between 2010 and 2011. Informants were selected in relation to the criteria of being middle-class, marriage into polygyny and willingness to share experiences irrespective of the geographical location. Empirical data for the paper were generated through life histories, chains of conversations, focus group discussions, and interviews with middle-class women and men.

The Law and Polygyny in Ghana

The records show that despite pressure from both internal and international forces that seek to uproot polygyny, Ghana continues on the path of a plural legal system which sees this form of marriage as a legitimate choice. The Ghanaian Law recognizes three forms of marriage (Daniels, 2009 p. 142), namely: Marriage celebrated under the Marriage Ordinance (Cap.127); marriage according to the rules of customary law; and marriage contracted under the Marriage of Mohammedans Ordinance (Cap. 129). Marriage under the Marriage Ordinance is monogamous, usually performed either by religious rites in Church (under Cap. 127) or by civil rite before a registrar (cf. Daniels, 2009 p. 145). Marriage under the Ordinance means that unless in the death of a marriage partner or where the marriage is legally terminated, neither party can marry another person. It also means that a man married under the Marriage Ordinance may not marry another woman (whether under the Marriage Ordinance or customary law). Indeed, the law points out that the offence for marrying a second wife under the Marriage Ordinance while being married by customary law (bigamy) carries a penalty. Additionally, the law states that the case of contracting a customary marriage to a third party, while being married under the Ordinance (bigamy) also carries a penalty (cf. Daniels, 2009). On the other hand “marriage under customary law in Ghana, however, is (…) generally potentially polygamous [5] in the sense that a man is entitled to marry as many wives as he wishes, whilst a woman is prohibited from marrying more than one husband” at the same time (Daniels, 2009 p. 145). In practice, Ghana’s pluralistic legal system offers different systems of law in relation to marriage which “apply concurrently (…) without spatial separation within a single territorial jurisdiction” (Allott & Woodman, 1985). The legal system in Ghana therefore allows a level of fluidity in the choice of marriage. According to the provisions of the law of Ghana, marriage under the Marriage Ordinance (Cap. 127) permits marriage under customary law to be converted from a customary marriage into a statutory monogamous marriage under the law if so desired (Daniels, 2009 p. 145). At the same time people married under customary law and the rites of Islamic Law can also change their status from monogamy to polygyny. The criss-cross between monogamy and polygyny in some cases is a matter of time as people move in and out of physical, political, ethnic, religious, and language boundaries, enforcing fission and fusion of individuals as members of groups, families, or as married couples.

The records show that the overwhelming majority of marriages in Ghana (over 80%) are contracted under customary law (ArdayfioSchandorf 2006; Awusabo-Asare 1990). This presupposes that “marriages are potentially polygamous”[6] (Daniels, 2009 p. 145) with seemingly wide discretionary powers inadvertently given to male decision regarding polygyny. In the matter of men being allowed to have other wives however, women reserve the option to opt for divorce if they disapprove. One would therefore expect that middleclass first wives (highly educated/career professionals and economically capable individuals) who feel cheated by polygynous husbands would seek divorce.

The Ghana Demographic and Health Survey (GSS, 2010) indicates generally that the dominant marital arrangement in Ghana is monogamy. The survey shows that the overwhelming majority of married women (82%) aged 15-49 were married to men who have only one wife. Even though data specific to middle-class is not readily available, the general notion gleaned from studies (Amevor, 2010; Dolphyne, 2005; Zeitzen, 2008) is that among the middle-class in Ghana, polygyny is generally frowned upon and therefore largely a somewhat hidden phenomenon. Assimeng (1999 p. 92) observes that although many Ghanaians might condemn polygyny “at verbal level”, they might also be prepared “to indulge in this arrangement, or variations of it, in secrecy.” Dolphyne (2005), in discussing what women’s emancipation means to women in Africa observed that it is common that some of the key challengers to any legislation banning polygyny in Ghana are women, including in some cases, “highly educated women”. She reports further that many women in Ghana find polygyny a suitable arrangement because it is useful as support for women who seek to pursue further education, have professional training, and enhancing their self-determination. In this sense, polygyny contributes to increased female status and economic freedom (see also Amevor, 2010 p. 83; Steady, 1987). Such apparent social ambivalence towards polygyny raises a set of issues. Revisiting the implications of the law and the shifting, multiple representations and challenges a plural legal system seemingly provides in the matter become crucial for my analysis. The question this paper attempts to answer is: How do middle-class prerequisites, especially long years in school for females, engender polygyny and what is the implication for law enforcement in the case of bigamy?

Pathways and the Meaning of Marriage

Within the context of the Ghanaian society, marriage and child bearing is a cultural goal (Nukunya, 2000). It is held as the basic premise for being alive, being happy, self-worth and a sign of health. The relevance of marriage is generally seen not just at the personal but also at the social plane. No matter the level of economic and social independence of the individual in Ghana, marriage largely remains for both male and female culturally prescribed. The basic normative prescription to marry and have children irrespective of economic and social status has been widely documented (Little, 1973; Dinan, 1983; Bleek, 1987). Against this background, my informants noted variously that by age 24 single young women become more and more conscious of the need to search for ‘Mr. Right’. In the middle-class [7] environment and especially in cities where the influence of extended family is relatively weaker, faith-based groups play a central role as family in this pursuit. Interviews with young single middle-class women reveal that the major concern relates to when, who and how to identify the ‘right’ suitor for marriage. The general consensus is that marriage and child birth are crucial for personal fulfilment, self-esteem, dignity and a great booster to the ego. The views of some informants [8] were as follows:

“Marriage means a lot and especially to well educated women as role-models. It brings respect from society and sets you on a higher level in the eyes of everyone. No matter your age, you’re seen as mature, wise, and balanced. One is accorded the esteem that goes with achievers. It is one social position all secretly want to reach” (Sedem: female, 27 year-old, graduate teacher). “You cannot easily ignore the pressure to be married eventually. Education or no education, one is pushed around so hard to get married. You may choose to have children outside marriage and many do so. But family members and especially church members never give up pushing for marriage” (Grace: female, 23 year-old Civil Engineer). “People persistently put you on edge (…) so much restlessness. Relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors and even strangers with very short acquaintance may pose the question within greetings (…) but they mean well (…) after all, who wants you to live in perpetual pity, ridicule and suspicion? Marriage is fulfilling, and adds to our self-respect, wholeness and self-esteem as capable members of the family (…)” (Zina, female, 26-year-old Banker).

My informants also intimated that even though young middle-class women postpone marriage until later, it is not necessarily because they are not sexually active or that they do not want marriage. Single middle-class women may be sexually active and the middle-class work environment is said to be prone to liaison. Examples often cited relates to jobs and careers that make middle-class men and women ‘globe-trotters’. On-the-job residential in-service training programmes, conferences and workshops have become part and parcel of the work schedule especially in NGOs, in both local and international agencies generally. This has initiated new frame of professional relationships and working life. It introduces new liaison patterns that are in many ways different from the patterns that existed primarily from the conditions within family businesses in the agrarian traditional economy. The boundaries that once separated the sexes are being removed at a faster rate now than ever before. Because it is unprecedented, the situation carries with it fluidity in which the old normative order between the sexes crumples. In the short run the situation evolves with new meanings and a vibrant culture. As a social current, informants noted that it lacks any concrete cultural normative system to cushion the jolt that comes with such abrupt social change. In general terms therefore, this fluidity creates avenues that are exploited by some middle-class men and women for extra marital liaisons [9]. Informants pointed out how group interaction in coed workplaces, frequent business travels and long hours outside the home create new opportunities that are exploited by individuals for extramarital affairs.

Young middle-class people interviewed said they weigh the timing of marriage against their personal advances in acquiring a desired level of career development and economic independence. What is important for my analysis is that, at this stage, sexual activity by unmarried women may have little or no bearing on marriage or child bearing. In the view of informants, the paradox is that long stay in school promotes the situation where young people become biologically mature and want sex but are regarded as socially immature to afford marriage. Young women at this stage are thought of as preferring already married men for two reasons. First a man, who is already married, especially given the heavy stigma attached to polygyny among the middle-class, may want a mistress for just the thrill and not for marriage. Although my informants acknowledge the centrality of marriage in the Ghanaian society, they often made a distinction between intimacies as survival strategy, and committed relationships for marriage. The general opinion is that young women who accept to date married men do it for varied ulterior motives including the adventure, social capital of exploiting relationships for good placement, economic capital for supporting a good lifestyle, cultural capital in deriving support for higher education, training opportunities and benefits.

Findings show that in some cases, what begins as a relationship for fun or meant to gain social capital is eventually routinized into marriage (i.e. polygyny). Circumstances may push the young woman to marry an already married man who she comes to see as her best option in fulfilling the cultural goal. It is a relational choice that individuals make depending on a number of other considerations. The path to polygyny is very diverse. This fluidity is manifest in the routine daily struggle of many of my young middle-class informants seeking to meet their aspirations within the confines of a social system that is harsh and unrelenting especially for young women.

It was generally agreed among informants that the choice of potential marriage partners has gone out of the control of especially the extended family, and also the era of betrothals or arranged or forced marriages are past. Yet still, middle-class women feel they are unduly put under subtle pressure within society to get married and have children. The concern of especially women I interviewed was about timing of marriage and the process for reaching this goal. To Efia, (female graduate, about 40 years, administrator, separated from husband, having one child):

“It is not like you have a choice anyway (marriage and/or child birth). It is complex. Disappointments are common and false steps here and there. One is always reminded that it must be done and done within the time frame. That is what makes a woman anxious”.

Indeed, anxiety over timing of marriage and\or child birth among middle-class women interviewed was widespread. Their male counterparts hardly mentioned pressure of marriage timing as an issue. But the common opinion gleaned from informants suggests that young women are conscious of the balance between years spent schooling, their personal objective of marriage, marriage timing and the challenge of a biological clock that is persistently working against them. But there is also another source of pressure. Efia, like many other young women I interviewed, observed that even though things are gradually changing, generally Ghanaian men still shy away from marrying their female contemporaries. She observes that:

“Some middle-class men feel intimidated by successful women. I have many married female friends who suffer because despite their qualifications, being married means they must always bend over backwards to please their husbands. Men still like to marry girls below their status and age; girls they can control, take care of, or as they often say, shape to their taste” (Efia, female graduate, about 40 years, administrator, separated from husband, having one child).

The female informants said they were conscious of the challenges in marriage – especially in relation to its limitations. They pointed out implications for their personal autonomy, competitive career building, and aspiration to climb the heights by merit, strength and character rather than measured in relation to differential male or female standards. But despite the many misgivings, the desire to marry continues to be very strong among middle-class women. Kumi (male, 29 years old) thinks that as a rallying point, the moral society is highly suspicious of any infiltrations from anywhere that seek to destabilize the concept of family values – heterosexual marriage and parenting. Sustaining marriage occupies a prominent place in religious groups, making marriage and child bearing a ‘religious and cultural’ obligation that individuals work towards. In this wise, individuals who delay marriage too long or choose not to marry are generally stigmatized. Efia tells about her own experience. She noted that because she was separated from the husband, she was under immense subtle pressure from family and society. She complained that a middle-class woman who lives without a man may have more social cost and burdens to fight against than when she goes by the name of marriage. Divorced women who want to avoid unwanted attention and male intruders may still keep the ex-husband’s name and wear the marriage ring as a sign of protection against insult and assault. Efia observed that among other reasons, some unmarried women also tend to wear ‘fake’ engagement rings as a common strategy to avert especially malicious pity from members of society.

On the other hand, informants point out that more and more middle class women seek ‘polycoity’ in which there is a loose arrangement between sexual partners. In this arrangement, the middle-class single woman lives alone with the male partner visiting intermittently. There are also middle-class single women with series of men they date simultaneously. In both cases, the discretion is completely in the hands of the woman. Informants also noted a trend among young middle-class women who have devised ‘innovative’ ways of reaching the cultural goal of having their own children without commitment to a man as a wife. Informants noted that some economically viable young middle-class women ‘seduce’ specific men of status they fancy for pregnancy. The purpose of this strategy is for such women to have children of their own without responsibilities towards the genitor of the child. In this case, the stories demonstrate female coercion. Middle class women do not entirely lack alternative reproductive strategies.

Two principal reasons were adduced for the practice. It is said that there are middle-class women who seek their freedom and autonomy because they want to invest in careers for security, or they feel marriage is much too complicated. Many in this segment want to satisfy the cultural goal of having children but not through marriage. The second group of single women is those who want to get married but are choosy about seeking partners within or above their social and economic status. Some informants noted that with more and more men seeking marriage partners of lower age and status than themselves, there is the phenomenon whereby not all eligible middleclass women who want to marry have the opportunity. Some of these women use polygyny as a means to this cultural goal. In this situation, one female informant reflecting on her own experience as second wife observes that:

“Even though it sounds odd for the career woman, my experience is that it is quite easy to adjust in polygyny when you know what you want. Respective wives usually live far apart in different suburbs of the same city, in different cities or even in different countries. They are independent in their homes with flexible arrangement for the to-and-fro of the husband. Rivalry is minimized when they hardly cross one another’s path. I see much flexibility; freedom and the personal choice for a woman to pursue her dreams, career, and have family at her own pace” (Eli, 43 year-old female civil servant).

Notwithstanding this, there were dissenting voices among my informants:

“For me it is bizarre, unromantic, unchristian, uncivilized and completely unacceptable. It is no marriage at all because of its make-shift arrangements where the husband is absent when the family needs him most. How do you plan your life on such ad-hoc basis?” (Grace, 38 year-old female Army officer).

Repeatedly, however, a number of informants, especially first wives married under the Marriage Ordinance but drawn into polygyny by ‘recalcitrant husbands’ see enforcement of the law related to bigamy as problem. The opinion of Lucy (45 year-old Nurse-Practitioner) represents the common view expressed by many first wives in diverse ways:

“Hmm! (…) I think the situation is worse because of poor law enforcement. There is virtually no certainty for a married woman against the man marrying another. Even under the Marriage Ordinance, the married woman is still not secure because enforcing the law may take forever, and the family may swing to the side of the man anyway. She has no certainty except the option of divorce. But even for that the church says no. It is a really difficult situation” (45 year-old Nurse-Practitioner, first wife, Roman Catholic with three children).

Other female informants, however, repeatedly attribute polygyny among the middle-class to the gap created through marriage squeeze facing especially middle-class women.

Husband snatching is quite common now. It involves especially young female graduates who hunt specifically for already married men of good standing for pregnancy. Because most young men their age prefer younger girls, some women become seriously desperate. To save the situation they become deliberate gatecrashers after the long sacrifice for career development. Sometimes the goal is attained at the expense of the dream of a monogamous marriage. It is not fair to married women but somehow, their air of being relatively younger and sometimes seemingly more daring and increasingly more and more sophisticated appeal very much to older men who are often already married but still crave for young women.

My findings suggest that the expressed opinion of seeking first to achieve academic laurels before marriage is the ideal shared by the generation of younger unmarried people. It is important to consider this in the context of new reforms in the academic programme that creates the possibility of the younger generation of Ghanaians accomplishing their educational dreams at far younger age than before. Within this new dispensation, however, there are those who want to achieve higher qualification at their own pace through an installment approach. Interviews with especially unmarried females above 30 years of age as well as married career women suggest that in practice, there is some generation gap. Much as older women want to combine marriage and further education, younger women (below 30 years) seem to think otherwise. But the lines are not so clear since it is a common phenomenon for women to break their pursuit of education for marriage and childbirth before resuming. Many have combined marriage, childbirth, formal education and work concurrently even as low as at the senior secondary school level (private students and at the workers’ college). It is particularly in vogue especially for women at the tertiary level of education in Ghana.

This is, however, an ambiguous situation for most women. Zina (female aged about 30, two children and married), a Banker explains that even though she successfully combined further education with marriage and child bearing, circumstances make it difficult for some wives to pursue further education. Resources may be lacking, pressure to cope especially with children’s routine care and schooling, estate development and paying for modern living which becomes an obsession after marriage. Informants also cited experiences of friends who delayed further education for marriage with promises of continuing like Zina but unfortunately met with strong resistance from husbands and even families when they tried to resume. In a number of cases, informants noted that the emerging situation in which some have to balance schooling and living away from their husbands and/or children have been implicated in the offshoot of divorce as well as polygyny among the Ghanaian middle-class. Zina concludes that “whatever way you turn it, there are challenges.”

As noted already, Efia’s observation that “men still like to marry girls below their status and age” meant that many middle-class women who spend years without marriage in order to achieve professional career and independence have some challenges in the marriage market. Despite public disapproval, the general notion is that polygyny is an avenue that offers opportunity for latecomers into the marriage market and for negotiating the cultural goal of marriage and/or child birth.


A very central concern about the effect of modern career development prospects on the social system is the latent function of long period of formal education that has inadvertently introduced a new challenge into the lives of women. Even though women have long been balancing multiple roles through history, the insertion of career development introduces a completely new phase. This new dimension has been seen as creating marriage squeeze especially for the middle-class woman. Indeed, the asymmetric fecundity horizon between men and women is a major hidden challenge largely influencing marriage market behavior generally (Rose, 2001). The comparative shorter fecundity horizon for females (a biological constraint) is peculiar to women specifically in the relationship between age and fertility decline. Long years in school therefore engender imbalance. Thus marriage, which hitherto was largely a ‘social given’ and a family imperative to ensure that daughters were ‘given into marriage’ through any of the diverse avenues – family betrothals, early marriage after puberty, arranged marriage, forced marriage, elopement – have witnessed drastic retractions and renunciations because of the combined effects of formal education and acculturation.

The situation in Ghana is further aggravated by the fact that for most middle-class women the norm of homogamy where a potential mate is expected to have socio-economic characteristics similar to the woman’s own or far above poses further threat (Takyi et al., 2003). Paradoxically however, middle-class men, unlike their female contemporaries, tend to seek first marriage partners from the segment of women who are below their age and status but who have the potentials of social mobility through further education. These differential inclinations introduce marriage squeeze that puts the middle-class woman into a potential deficit. For Merton, this engenders “an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals” of having children through marriage and the socially structured means to realize this goal. Merton argues that the discontinuity between culture and structure has the dysfunctional consequence of promoting deviance within society (cf. Ritzer, 2007). The implication of this in the life of middle-class women is vividly captured by Aidoo (1993) in her novel – Changes. The novel depicts the trajectory of a Ghanaian middle-class woman through various stages of her experiences – monogamy, divorce, and then the choice of remarriage as a second wife in a polygynous union. Among other things, the novel challenges the stereotypical notion of coercion of women by men into polygyny. It alludes to the idea that middle-class women have a choice and to a large extent, middle-class women have the agency of exerting the right to choose what type of marriage appeals to them as individuals.

The issue of marriage squeeze facing high achieving women who spent much of their lives pursuing career goals at the expense of having children is not peculiar to Ghana. The current global debate over the alternative offered by Apple and Facebook’s “social egg freezing” (Conrad, 2014) for female employees (for non-medical reasons) show that the situation is global. What is obvious, though, is that approaches to meeting this challenge may differ from society to society depending on resources available, as well as legal and cultural tenets of respective societies. It is a relationship between people and their institutions and because culture is dynamic, institutions built on it are perpetually in the process of change to fit concerns. In this pursuit, the role of the plural legal system in Ghana especially regarding its significance for marriage has become a major topic for debate. The literature (Amevor, 2010; Assimeng, 1999; Dolphyne, 2005; Zeitzen, 2008) shows that there is a general divide in public opinion on the matter. On the one hand, some middle-class women hail it as necessarily flexible and resilient enough in allowing choices including polygyny to accommodate the challenges women face. Other middle-class women see it as a threat to order, a challenge that brings anomie. The latter group feels vulnerable especially because of poor enforcement of the law on bigamy. For them such a failure reinforces the perception of a broken system. Like Merton (Ritzer, 2007) argues, not all ideals enshrined works for everyone in a given society. Indeed, in accepting polygyny, the law is functional for some single middle-class women dealing with deprivation and seeking for opportunity to achieve their cultural goal of marriage. But the same law has consequences that are generally dysfunctional for others who are married into monogamy and seeking protection from husbands straying into polygyny. In other words, even though all may subscribe to the cultural goal, the ways in which individual middle-class people go about obtaining the goal are not the same because not everyone has the same opportunities.

A very remarkable observation by Nukunya (2000, p. 21) explains the situation more pointedly. During a debate on the law on bigamy in Ghana, Nukunya noted that a judge was said to have observed that the law on bigamy is a legal provision in the law books of Ghana but not made to be enforced. The statement shows the power configurations within the social setting emerging out of the social processes that make difficult the strict enforcement of the law on bigamy in Ghana. For the common person, the situation introduces a level of protracted ambiguity and mistrust for law enforcement.The ambivalence that the law itself is weakly enforced has forced many women to look to the Church as an institution to prevail against polygyny. Yet, the Church is but a voluntary organization and its enforcement of such a code is limited to professed faith of individuals. The situation is further related to the plural legal system itself fostering uncertainty. For Britwum et al. (2004 p. 5), the situation creates a level of “complex legal problems such as the need to decide which particular rules apply to a particular transaction: how to determine membership of a particular group and how an individual can change the law applicable to him/her as a member of a group; what choice of law/ rules must exist for issues between people of different groups and the determination of whether a particular system of law applies in a certain geographical area.” Notwithstanding the fact that “final judicial power is vested in the state judiciary” (Britwum et al., 2004 p. 5), the pluralistic nature of the legal system means in practice that the customary laws “wield immense powers, and especially in places where the impact of formal state structures and their laws is not that significant, what holds sway is the customary law” (Britwum et al., 2004 p. 5). In this situation, some cultural practices generally take precedence over legal norms, just as legal institutions can fail to account adequately for traditional systems and social institutions in design and implementation (cf. Amuzu et al.,2010 p. 14). This is especially the case where the predicament of women especially is aggravated by the fact that even though divorce is accepted by law, it is largely unaccepted to some religious faiths95 and frowned upon in customary marriage in Ghana. This situation further hems-in the limited freedom of choice available for women and creates a protracted predicament.

Indeed, the fluidity of the law on marriage also creates some level of ambivalence. However, some middle-class women also see this situation as an advantage in coping with the divergent expectations that they face. On the one hand, the cultural goal of having children looms large irrespective of marriage squeeze that some high achieving women face. It is in this context that the Ghanaian plural legal system, to a large measure affords leverage by allowing choices in relation to polygyny or monogamy. For some middle-class women, polygyny offers the alternative arrangement for meeting the cultural goal of marriage and/or child birth and at the same time creating personal space to contradict the stereotypes of pliability and submissiveness as wives. The middle-class woman who decides to stay back in polygyny instead of divorcing may use the situation in varied ways. On the one hand, findings show how the situation brings dejection and varied challenges to some women who accept to be drawn into polygyny. On the other hand however, there are women who turn the situation around, dexterously engaging the normative order for creating space to their advantage. In this sense, middleclass women are conscious of the intentional allocation of their sexuality: sex, fertility resources as well as time and career needs. They seek in diverse ways to maximize their autonomy and to better their lives, which stem from being adept at negotiating and navigating diverse paths for fulfilling goals they deem important. Polygyny, in its diverse forms therefore remains the ‘niche-filler’ in many cases.


Many young middle-class women face difficult choices between striving for higher levels of academic achievement and protecting their place in society as responsible individuals. This raises the issue of the relationship between change and persistence in the underlying values that drive society. In this wise, it can be concluded that polygyny may never wholly disappear among middle-class women despite the dishonour attached, as long as the specific collectivistic cultural goal of marriage and having children continue to be a priority. I contend that both social structures and human agency are critical in understanding the decision of the individual middle-class woman into polygyny. The proverb – “if you have to eat toads, choose the fat and juicy ones” elucidate “intentionality” and “contextual choice” associated with women’s agency in polygyny. The findings suggest that middle-class women are not always victims in relation to the ‘choice’ of polygyny and indeed, in some cases, middle-class men could be victims of ‘choices’ women make. I argue that the modern educational system has inadvertently failed to consider the implications of higher education for women on the cultural goal of marrying and having children. Actors therefore improvise from the pool of diverse social leanings even in cases like bigamy where the law could conveniently be side-stepped if enforcement is deemed to be weak.

My thesis is therefore that ‘social development’ is a complex phenomenon with its own latent functions within which the contradictions of meaning about what is important in life continues to be defined, shifted, contested and realigned to fit the needs of people. In this sense, one dilemma for development actors remains how to reconcile the challenge of long years demanded by formal education on marriage squeeze especially for middle-class women. Development discourse treats the challenge as a phase and therefore ‘transition cost’ that would fade away with institutional dynamics. But the records suggest that it remains a challenge not only in developing countries like Ghana but also in Western societies. Perhaps, polygyny is as practical for middle-class women in technology-challenged Ghana as ‘social egg freezing’ (oocyte cryopreservation) is for Apple and Facebook that pay for female employees to have eggs frozen for pregnancy later in life. Moral undertones aside, the essence for either is the same; giving ‘stranded’ career female employees the hope and undeniably the opportunity to concentrate on their careers first and to have children later in life. Unless we consider the social and cultural underpinnings of a given environment, it will be difficult to appreciate the law allowing polygyny in Ghana as a dynamic institutional provision. In a society where the old and the new ways of life are intrinsically locked in an ever changing concert, the challenge of sustainable-development arises from the social costs of negotiating new paths and the management of its latent functions. In this sense, polygyny as choice remains an ally in women’s struggle for ‘emancipation’ and invariably contributes towards enhancing well-being for those who see it as important.


  1. Marriage here is used to mean a union between a man and a woman sanctioned through rites by payment and acceptance of some form of bride-wealth. Polygyny is where a man is married formally (some form of bride-wealth paid) to more than one wife simultaneously.
  2. For a comprehensive review on family change in Africa, see Erdmute Alber and Astrid Boschow (2011). ‘Changes in African Families: A Review of Anthropological and Sociological Approaches towards Family and Kinship in Africa.’ In Ana Marta Gozalez, Laurie F. DeRose, and Florence Oloo; Frontiers of Globalization; Kinship and Family Structures in Africa. Africa World Press, Trenton.
  3. Used here to mean polygyny
  4. The research was carried out between April and October 2010 followed by a second field visit between August 2011 and January 2012 as part of my PhD programme.
  5. Used here to mean ‘polygynous’
  6. The term is used here to mean polygynous.
  7. I use the concept ‘middle-class’ to include individuals with a minimum of college education: nurses, teachers, civil service workers, professionals, politicians, paramedics, physicians, engineers, professors, civilian contractors and also educated Ghanaian migrants living in the Diaspora.
  8. I have used pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of informants.
  9. The story of Dr Richard Anane (Ghanaweb, 2008) illustrates this phenomenon quite vividly. During his tenure as Health Minister in Ghana, Dr. Anane attending an international AIDS conference in the United States of America allegedly engaged in unprotected sexual encounter with a fellow participant (an American woman) during the AIDS conference. The woman became pregnant as a result, later gave birth and sued Dr. Anane for child support. The sex cum corruption scandal levelled against Dr. Anane saw his resignation from the government.

*The list of the author’s references can be found here.

Evam Kofi Glover previously studied at the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra and the University of Exeter, UK. In Winter 2014, he completed his to-be-published Dr. Phil. project at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany. He lectures at the Medical School of the University for Development Studies, Tamale, Ghana. His research interests include human sexuality and reproductive health, rural development, project design and development, project monitoring and evaluation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s