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“Will You be My Bonus Wife?” The Practice of Marrying Sisters in Malawi

Recently I was in Malawi to train a team of field workers to conduct a large-scale survey on HIV prevention behavior. Before such an international trip, I often get a lot of questions regarding the landscape or local culture of my destination from people who are not familiar with my work or the part of the world I happen to be visiting. Most recently, an acquaintance asked me several questions about multiple sexual partnerships and polygamy in Malawi. “Are people really okay with having multiple partners? Even the women? Even married people?” So during my uneventful nights in a remote hotel on top of a mountain in Malawi’s southern region, I did some reading on local marriage customs. Almost as if thoughts were planted by my acquaintance, I came across a concept I was unfamiliar with—the “bonus wife” (mbirigha or nthena in Chichewa, the local language).

In several Malawian cultures, a man acquires a “bonus wife” when he marries the younger sister or niece of his current wife. In a qualitative study conducted by the Malawi Human Rights Commission,1 45% of respondents said this practice is common in their community. This practice has also been found to exist in indigenous cultures in South Africa,2 and it has been reported in remote areas of Kenya.3 Non-monogamous social norms and polygamous marriages in some traditional African cultures are believed to contribute to the lack of success of HIV prevention campaigns that aim to convince people to reduce their number of sexual partners. People are so accustomed to the idea of multiple partners that it seems unnatural for a man (and sometimes a woman) to have sex with just one person for the rest of their lives.4 Thus, many such partner reduction campaigns fail.

In Malawi, sometimes a man acquires a “bonus wife” when the first wife convinces her sister to join the marriage. She does this so the man does not marry another woman outside the family—so that his wealth can be kept in the first wife’s family rather than sharing it with an unknown woman. Or the first wife may want to bring her sister or niece into the relationship in case the husband dies so that the first wife is not left alone. The aunts or parents may also encourage the practice if the man has a lot of resources or if they want to thank their son-in-law for being so generous with their first daughter. The reasons for a family to offer a bonus wife are largely driven by economics—it is expensive to care for many daughters, so finding a wealthy man who can take on more than one is a “bonus” for the family as well.

But sometimes the husband himself initiates the process of taking on a bonus wife, especially if he lusts after her. In some areas in the southern part of Malawi, the man will prepare a basket of maize flour and one chicken (gifts that will ensure the family has key ingredients for many meals in the future). He then has his current wife take the basket to her parents to ask for the sister’s hand in marriage. If the parents accept, the man goes through the formal process of paying the bride price to her family before the younger sister joins the union.

Although a bonus wife may benefit the first wife in that she can live with a member of her own family rather than with a second wife who is a stranger, the practice has been criticized. A bonus wife is often married off at a very young age; in many cases, these new unions occur as soon as the girl reaches puberty. More often than not, the arrangement is made without the girl’s consent, raising many concerns among Malawi human rights groups that this practice is a violation of the rights of the child. While the Malawi Constitution prohibits forced marriages, most violations go unreported.

So while my acquaintance thought having a “bonus wife” sounded like a bonus indeed, it creates a greater financial burden for the husband. And if done without a girl’s consent, the practice could be considered a human rights violation. Regardless, multiple relationships are not unusual in many African societies, and a better understanding of these norms might lead to greater success in HIV prevention programs.

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1Malawi Human Rights Commission (2005). Cultural Practices and their Impact on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, Particularly the Rights of Women and Children in Malawi. Lilongwe, Malawi: Malawi Human Rights Commission.

2Shisana, O., & Simbayi, L. C. (2002). Nelson Mandela/HSRC Study of HIV/AIDS: SouthAfrican National HIV Prevalence, Behavioural Risks and Mass Media: Household Survey 2002. Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council Press.

3Ondiek, J. (2010, October). Generous man lands a ‘bonus’ wife. Standard Digital. Retrieved from http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000020941/generous-man-lands-a-bonus-wife

4Harman, J. J., Kaufman, M. R., Aoki, E., & Trott, C.D. (2014). Sexual network partners in Tanzania:  Labels, power, and the systemic muting of women’s health and identity. In H. Pishwa and R. Schulze (Eds.), The Expression of Inequality in Interaction: Power, Dominance, and Status, pp. 49-79. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Dr. Michelle Kaufman - Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.

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