Thirteen of every 100 married Kenyan women have co-wives. This means they are married to men who have at least one or more other wives, according to the latest official statistics on population trends.
Although the figure represents a drop from the 16 of every 100 married women who had co-wives in 2003, the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), 2008/2009 says Kenyan men should restrain themselves from taking more than one wife.
Polygamy means mutilple spouses; polygny means multiple wives; and polyandry means multiple husbands.
Experts believe that in Kenya polygny is one of the social practices fuelling the spread of HIV/Aids.
It also perpetuates large families, frustrating campaigns to control population growth estimated at 2.3 per cent per year.
Results of last year’s national population census — now scheduled to be released next month— are expected to show that Kenya has a population of 40 million people, a number so high that it will dominate today’s World Population Day official celebrations being held in Mombasa.
“We get worried by polygamous marriages because they increase the likelihood that co-wives will compete among themselves at having more children and end up contributing to the average number of births per women,” said Samuel Ogola, a programme officer at the National Coordinating Agency for Population and Development.
The situation, he said, was worse among less educated women, an observation confirmed in the KDHS report.
It shows that educated women were less likely to practice polygamy, a practice that was common in past centuries when having more women and children was considered to be a status symbol and a source of pride for men.
Having more daughters in the past was seen as a source of wealth from the dowry paid to their families when they were married. Boys, for their part, were seen as key to continuing the family tree.
According to the KDHS findings, polygny is stronger in some regions than in others.
North Eastern Province has the highest proportion of women in polygynous marriages – 36 in every 100.
The proportion of women in polygynous marriages in Western, Nyanza, Rift Valley and Coast provinces ranged between 15 and 23 per cent.
“Women with no or low education and those who are poorest are most likely to live in polygynous marriages,” according to the report.
It also showed that older women were more likely to be in polygynous unions than younger ones, and the practice is more prevalent in rural than urban areas.
But only seven of every 100 married men surveyed said they had more than one wife.
The number of wives men reported reflects differences by region and socio-economic status. Nyanza had the highest number of men with more than one wife, while the men in Central had the lowest.
In 2003, the prevalence of polygyny among men was 10 per cent. Moi university lecturer Juliet Macharia said she did not see any problem with women accepting to be married to a man who had more than one wife as long as they limited the number of children they bore.
Even then, she said, it mattered less if the couple in polygamous marriages was able to take care of their children.
“My only concern is that such couples have a higher risk of infidelity,” she said.
Japheth Omwenga, the public health administrator in Nyamira, where polygamy is common, said women in polygamous marriages had a tendency to compete with one another to have more children, thereby raising the total fertility rate for each woman.
Currently, woemn in Kenya have an average of 4.6 children, down from 4.9 in 2003.
“The situation in such marriages is made worse if women are competing with their co-wives to balance the sex of their children,” said Mr Omwenga, a demographer.
In certain communities, he said, some women preferred a particular sex and would fight to even out the number of boys and girls with their co-wives, leading to higher fertility rates.
According to Emmanuel Ouma, the Kenya Red Cross official in charge of the Western and Nyanza region, the latest reports regarding polygamous families highlights the recent findings that HIV/Aids spread was common among married people.
Likelihood of mistrust
“It must be one of the greatest contributors to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/Aids because the likelihood of mistrust among couples is higher than in monogamous marriages,” he said.
The study’s findings also show that women who married at an early age ended up giving birth to more children than those who married later in life.
Marriage is generally associated with fertility since it exposes women to the possibility of conception as well as condones it.
This also implied that the length of the possibility of pregnancy depends primarily on the age at which women first marry.
Women who marry earlier, on average, have their first child earlier and give birth to more children, contributing to higher fertility rates.
The survey showed that urban women tend to marry almost three years later than their rural counterparts.
Women from North Eastern, Nyanza, Western, Coast and Rift Valley provinces generally entered into marriage earlier than women in Nairobi, Eastern and Nairobi provinces.
About half the women sampled had had sexual intercourse by the age of 18.
“Older women are slightly more likely to have had their first sexual encounter at an earlier age, although the difference between the older and younger women is minimal,” says the report. “Younger men initiated sex much earlier than older men.”
According to the study, nearly one in every four men under the age of 24 had his first sexual encounter before the age of 15.
According to the study, women in rural areas began to be sexually active about two years earlier than their urban counterparts. Among women age 25-29, sexual activity begins earliest in Nyanza Province (16.5 years) and latest in Nairobi (20.3 years).
With respect to education, women with at least secondary education begin sexual activity almost three years later than those with no education.
Similarly, the wealthiest women tend to initiate sexual activity almost three years later than those who are poor.
But for men, the lower median age at first sex is in Western Province (16.9 years), and the highest median age is in North Eastern Province (24.3 years).