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African women in polygamous marriages are at higher risk of being physically abused by their husbands than women whose husbands have only one wife, a study has revealed.

The study surveyed more than 14,000 married women in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and found higher rates of domestic violence in polygamous marriages, which are still common in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Empowering these women legally and economically and transforming retrogressive gender norms creates opportunities for development.”

Jemimah Njuki, Canada's International Development Research Centre

In Kenya, women in polygamous marriages were twice as likely to experience domestic violence as those who are the only wife. In Zimbabwe, Ghana and Malawi this figure was 1.8, 1.6 and 1.3, respectively.

The results were presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago last week (23 August).

Depending on the country, the risk was lowered by women attaining education and gaining employment, but increased if they lived in cities and were similar in age to their husbands.   

For instance, in Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe, women with tertiary education were less likely to experience domestic violence, says Tatenda Zinyemba, a researcher at Indiana University and a co-author of the study.

“However, education is not associated with the risk of experiencing intimate partner physical violence in Malawi, where the risk is the same for all women regardless of educational attainment,” she says.

The study found that levels of domestic violence varied among the four countries. Kenya had the highest incidence of domestic violence, with 28 per cent of respondents saying they had experienced physical violence from their partner at home.

“It is outrageous that women continue to suffer from domestic violence,” says Jemimah Njuki, a sociologist and senior programme officer at Canada's International Development Research Centre. Njuki, who is originally from Kenya, says domestic violence has a negative impact on agricultural production and family wellbeing, since the majority of women in Sub-Saharan Africa work in farming.

“Empowering these women legally and economically and transforming retrogressive gender norms creates opportunities for development,” she says.

She adds that understanding the factors that lead to domestic violence, such as those revealed by this study, is useful for making government interventions. These should include getting more women into paid work, which increases their financial independence and power in the home, she says.