For many women, life in a polygamous marriage is never easy as first wives and newcomers treat each other as foes.
Monica Chalira, 30, has endured a lot of suffering inflicted by her co-wife and husband.
“I knew my husband was married when he first approached me. Everything looked rosy and I couldn’t wait to spend my life with him even though he was jobless,” she says. “However, the relationship became thorny when I moved in. I endured insults from the first wife every day, but I never expected any abuse from the man I loved wholeheartedly.”
For Monica, the reality of polygamy kicked in when the husband declared that the family’s harvest would not be shared equally between the two wives.
“To my shock, last year, I recieved only two bags of maize out of 18. The rest went to the first wife and my husband told me to say nothing because he was the head of the house,” she narrates.
Monica has since returned to her father’s place. She now sells fritters to support her two children.
“Life has never been easy, but we are surviving. My husband wants me back, but enough is enough,” she says.
In 2015, Malawi Human Rights Commission listed polygamy as one of the harmful cultural practices fuelling gender-based violence and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The respondents testified that it relegates women and children to slaves or cheap labour on farms controlled by men.
The 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) shows 13 percent of women in the country are in polygamous relationships, down from 20 percent in 1992. But only seven percent of men had multiple wives, down from nine percent in 1992.
Mchinji district gender officer Mariana Kanjirawaya says most women in polygamy are increasingly suffering physical and emotional abuse though the Central Region is home to the least percentage of the widespread form of multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships.
According to MDHS, the North has the highest cases of polygamous families at 18 percent and the South comes second at 11 percent.
However, the nationwide survey shows a woman’s likelihood to get into polygamy wanes with increased education. It reveals that 21 percent of women with no education were in polygamous marriages compared to only three percent of those with secondary education.
“Gender based violence [GBV] in the district has been on the rise. Mostly, the first wife suffers worse abuse than what second wives experience at the hands of their co-wives and husbands,” she explains.
Kapiri Community Development Organisation (Kacodo) in Mchinji has been working with the district’s victim support unit and other organisation to save women from violence occurring in polygamous families.
Kacodo executive director Linda Kabanda says polygamy and GBV cases are thriving because of most women’s low education attainment. She reckons women with little or no education are likely to marry polygamous men “for survival purposes”.
She explains: “Every year, we experience a rise in the number of reported cases between April and September, which is the harvesting season. However, illiteracy and poverty are the main factors contributing to an increasing number of polygamous marriages in Mchinji.
“Most men are farmers. They marry many wives to help them grow crops, not out of love. What they do not know is that they are just being used like hoes. During the growing season, from October to March, most men treat their wives well so that the women can help them in the farms. Come the season of harvest, everything changes.”
Some acquire HIV as neither the man nor the woman gets tested for HIV before marriage.
“A woman who enters a polygamous union is usually in no position to insist on testing,” reads the National Plan of Action to Combat Gender Based Violence in Malawi.
According to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), polygamous marriage violates a woman’s right to equality with men and can have serious emotional and financial consequences for her and dependents.
Such marriage ought to be discouraged and prohibited, the international treaty reads.
However, the practice persists in both rural and urban parts of Malawi.
For Chalira, being able to stand up after falling into a risky sex web marks a new beginning.
“I live in a leaky house, but I have the peace of mind that I deserve. My life is getting better now because I do everything on my own,” she says.
Group village head Chisenga in Traditional Authority Dambe, Mchinji says it is sad that most women in polygamy are just labouring for the benefit of their husbands.
“The women are blinded by love. No one knows what goes on in another person’s mind,” he says.
While polygamy is not legally recognised under the 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, the country’s customary law affords a generous amount of benefits to such unions, ranging from inheritance rights to child custody.