CASE STUDY: The U.S. state of Utah has taken steps to combat the practice of polygamy, including adopting a constitutional prohibition against polygamy and hiring an investigator to investigate secret factions. Still, practices of polygamy still continue and must be sought out and prosecuted. Utah recently prosecuted and convicted Tom Green of four counts of bigamy under Utah law. Green sought to circumvent laws against bigamy by marrying each of his wives in Utah and obtaining divorces from them in Nevada. Prosecutors sought a court order to solemnize his marriage to his wife, thus laying the foundation for bigamy charges for his other four wives. Under Utah Code Ann. §76-7-101(1), a person commits bigamy when he marries or cohabitates with another person, with the knowledge that he has a husband or wife or the other person has a husband or wife; importantly, extramarital cohabitation can constitute the actus reus necessary for bigamy. The prosecution established that, despite Green’s divorce decrees, he was effectively married to more than one woman under Utah’s common law marriage law, Utah Code Ann. §30-1-4.5. Under the common law marriage provision, a legal marriage can be established upon a court order that finds that a man and woman:
(a) are of legal age and capable of giving consent; (b) are legally capable of entering a solemnized marriage under the provisions of this chapter; (c) have cohabited; (d) mutually assume marital rights, duties, and obligations; and (e) who hold themselves out as and have acquired a uniform and general reputation as husband and wife. Utah Code Ann. §30-1-4.5 (1). In addition, prosecutors charged and convicted him of felony rape of an underage girl, who he later married.
Example: Kurdistan Law No. 62 (2001) bans polygamy except in conditional cases. (See: Women Protest against Polygamy in Kurdistan, AWID, 2008) Legislators should ensure that polygamy is banned without exception.
CASE STUDY: South Africa’s Recognition of Customary Marriages Act (RCMA) recognizes marriages under customary practices, which may include polygamous marriages. Customary marriages existing prior to the enactment of the RCMA are recognized under customary laws while those entered in to after enactment of the RCMA are recognized by the government only if the parties abide by the provisions of the RCMA. The RCMA requires that the spouses be over the age of 18 (or have parental consent) and that all parties agree to the marriage. The RCMA allows men to seek approval for another spouse, but does not extend the same to women. If the man is already in a customary marriage, his existing wife or wives must agree to the new marriage and be represented in discussions related to division of marital property. While one of the primary purposes of the RCMA is to provide a mechanism to protect the rights of existing spouses when a new polygamous relationship is proposed, it institutionalizes practices that discriminate against women and which are in contravention of the Bill of Rights in South African constitution which states:
1. Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.
2. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.
3. The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
4. No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds in terms of subsection (3). National legislation must be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination.
5. Discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair.
Men are permitted to marry more than one woman, while a similar rule does not apply to women. There may be little incentive, aside from honor, for men to register subsequent marriages in a patriarchal society where polygamy is not illegal. Theoretically, the property rights of the women in these relationships may be protected if the parties abide by the RCMA, but the unequal bargaining power of women due to their socio-economic or wife status renders this law discriminatory in impact. Legislation should ensure that conflicts between customary and formal laws should be resolved in a manner that respects women’s human rights and principles of gender equality.