John O. Ifediora

As Nigerians head to the polls to elect a new president in February, the most populous country in Africa that sheperds the continent’s largest economy would once again have the opportunity to grapple with a vexing man-inspired and socially debilitating problem that continues to burdened half of its population….the anachronistic practice of polygamy. Nigeria, with its variety of social and economic problems aside, still wields substantial influence on the continent and if it decides to make  equality of the sexes a public policy priority through its choice of governance, a latent powerful economic transformation atrophied in the continent by years of regressive customary practices would be awakened. Who the country chooses to lead it for the next four years would be a litmus test of its readiness for progressive initiatives that protect and empower women. But first, a look at polygamy, its incidence and burden.

In its definitional and operational sense, polygamy is a matrimonial indulgence by which any of the sexes takes on multiple wives or husbands; the latter, however, is rare and seldom the case. While such formal and informal family arrangements are not exclusive preserves of Africans, they are nonetheless enduring and pervasive in all African nation-states with no clear signs of abatement. Of immediate interest is the case where a man takes on two or more wives in exercise of his customary rights, and the desire to put in public view his ability to sustain such burden. That this is the case is of ancient origin in the continent, but so are the unimaginable consequences on the lives of women, who, by cultural prescriptions or by force of economic necessity, find themselves in the arduous task of polygamy. But from whence does the appeal for such family arrangement originate, and how does it benefit society? These questions need not detain us here, for of immediate concern is the welfare of the women involved, and the impact on national productivity.

The abysmal economic performance by African States in past decades is attributable to a host of known factors – mismanagement of resources, graft, and bureaucratic corruption; but of all the known culprits that have so far suppressed economic growth, none is more intransigent, and yet least addressed, than Africa’s patriarchal customary practices, and traditional observances. These pervasive practices are traceable, with relative facility, to controlling traits of antiquity that have remained resilient to the moderating effects of education, and experiments with ‘democratic’ forms of governance. The failure to incorporate cultural sensibilities, and to see things from the point of view of Africans continue to frustrate all otherwise reasonable attempts at development. Amongst experts in the development community, it is widely acknowledged that a major cause of economic underdevelopment in modern Africa is the relative absence of industrialization, and lack of demonstrable opportunities for effective employment of both capital and human resources. But while capital accumulation and industrialization are mutually self-sustaining and fundamental to development, how a society treats and deploys its human capital ultimately determine its development trajectory.

By testimony of evidence, it may now be forcefully declared that among the known culprits, the chief hindrance to social and economic development in the continent can be found in the cultural norms that regulate the relations between the sexes —– the quasi legal subordination of women to men that informs past and current understanding of polygamy. This state of affairs in which African societies have perennially subjected women, instructs African women of their roles in society; which are, in the main, directly opposite to those reserved for men. They are informed, in this regard, on how to perfect the art of subservience to their male counterparts, not to aspire to self-governance, or act in manners indicative of self- will. They are told that morality requires of them to faithfully execute the function nature has reserved for them, which is to reproduce; and by abnegation of self, to nourish both husband and children through affection and dedication. For centuries, this understanding has defined the collective lot of African women, and sadly, it remains a debilitating influence on development efforts in the continent. The fact that many modern African women have excelled in various professional endeavors is encouraging, but does not define the collective lot of many more.

A question of immediate urgency, however, is how to further explore the effects of culturally induced disparate treatment of African women on economic development, and how the ensuing inequality of opportunities between the sexes detracts from development efforts. The thesis here is that the denial of fair and equal treatment to women in African societies is a major contributing factor to perceived and actual economic underdevelopment, and that real and sustained socio-economic development is achievable only when such unjust practices are allowed to elapse into disuse. This work provides a brief guidance on the effects of subjection on development, and how such effects may be ameliorated by gender-sensitive public policies in education, and employment opportunities. The analytic approach adopted is necessarily informed by a liberal interpretation of justice that presumes a moral equality of the sexes, and admits of no preference or natural disability of one or the other.

In early human societies, especially in ages long past, the ‘law of superior strength’ defined inter-personal or inter-community relations; indeed it was the rule that governed human existence and had public approbation as a source of sustenance. The African experience in this regard is no different. That the physically weaker sex came to be subordinated to the stronger one was a natural outcome of this primeval system of social discourse and relations; a system of subjection and inequality derived, not from formal deliberation or forethought on what conduces to the social good, but from a prevailing social conditioning and the understanding that women have value to men, and through brute force placed women in a state of semi bondage. With time, this state of affairs became socialized and accepted as the norm of social relations between the sexes; and as is customary in all other human activities, laws and customs that now govern the relations between the sexes took hold by formalizing what they found already in existence in society. What began as a physical reality is turned into a legal one; women, once compelled into submission and obedience by superior physical strength are now bound to them by operation of customary laws, and tradition.

Historical social positioning of African Women and the effects on Development

In modern liberal democracies, the a priori presumption leans in favor of equality in treatment, and freedom; by insisting on the equal distribution of these basal ‘primary goods,’ a special sense of social justice is prescribed. It is hence presumed, as a matter of public policy, that constraints on basic liberties are morally unacceptable; but if any is necessary for the social good, it must be properly balanced against individual liberties. Furthermore, rules and laws that regulate public discuss and relations must be impartial unless justice dictates disparate treatment in favor of the disadvantaged. This Rawlsian interpretation of justice informs this work, and has also been a guiding influence on recent policy initiatives in modern Africa, where proponents of progressive liberalism have not only urged the protection of individual rights from state practices, but have shaped the debate on human rights with a strong sense of justice that insists on protection from oppressive social roles and practices that developed under conditions of inequality.

The chief distinguishing feature of social institutions in modern societies is the ability to generate and encourage divergent views on important social issues that progressively move societies farther away from the past and into more enlightenment. This separation from the past enables the dissolution of cultural bonds that chained people to the life they were born into, and frees them to apply their natural or refined intellect in any social endeavor they see fit. But history reminds us that this separation from the past is a slow and painful process, for no subordinated group ever began their quest from oppression by seeking complete freedom and equality immediately. The almost inevitable path is that those who are under any sort of oppression through power of ancient origin begin by complaining, not of the power itself, but of the excessive application of it. It is only after the exercise of such oppressive power is successfully challenged is the initial right to such power subjected to social scrutiny, and if found in discord with modern liberal sentiments, it is then pressed into disuse.

With time, and through the modernizing effects of human struggles for freedom and independence, it has become increasingly clear, even to the most disinterested observer, that individual liberty and freedom of choice are the best means to promote the economic welfare of societies. By enabling individuals to engage in activities best suited to their natural talents and acquired skills, society procures for itself the highest possible level of social productivity. It is thus counterintuitive, and self- defeating for the same society to arbitrarily impose limitations on what half of its constituent members can, and cannot do on the grounds of unproven assumptions of capabilities. And even if the assumption that the sexes are suited for different productive activities is shown to hold, there would be exceptions; and to forbid those who fall outside this socialized assumption the opportunity to participate fully to their abilities is not only unjust, but also operates in detriment to individual benefits, and to those of society. Will Kymlicka , in his book entitled, ‘Contemporary Philosophy,’ goes a step further:

“The ideology of equal opportunity seems fair to many because it ensures that people’s fate is determined by their choices, rather than their circumstances; success or failure is determined by performance, not by race or class or sex. If I fail it is not because I was born into the ‘wrong’ group, thus success is earned and merited through one’s own efforts. It would be unfair for individuals to be disadvantaged or privileged by arbitrary and undeserved differences in their social circumstances.” (Kymlicka, 2002).

What is being asked, within the context of a just society, is not that special privileges and benefits be conferred on women; it is rather that the special benefits and privileges conferred on men so far be withdrawn to enable fair and equal participation by women in matters of social and private consequence. It is still an observable fact in Africa that social institutions, with varying degrees of vitality and longevity, continue to impute right to might, and make it possible for those who originally acquired power through morally unjust avenues to retain it as a matter of course. And while other social institutions are gradually yielding to modern dictates by becoming less rigid, and accommodating of change, the ones more directly relevant to the relations between the sexes remain peculiarly intransigent, and less responsive to reformed sensibilities. That women, who make up more than half of Africa’s population, remain largely in the unnatural state of inequality, and subordinated to their male counterparts in both familial and public spheres are manifestations of, and a cause of significant social and economic dislocations in the continent.

Differences in Years of Schooling As a Contributing Factor

The socially ascribed roles as now exist between the sexes did not originate from legitimate differentials on natural talents or capacities, but arose instead on assumed limitations on the part of women, and privileges advanced to men. The assumptions and privileges are further advanced by the differential treatment of the sexes within the family unit. In Africa, it has always been the case, until lately, that boys receive disproportionate portions of a family’s resource in all manners of investment in human capital or in training necessary for independent pursuit of career choices. It is only after the educational or training requirements of the boys have been reasonably satisfied would those of the girls receive attention, assuming the family’s resources are not yet depleted or severely constrained. This disparity in treatment is based on the customary belief that investments in girls are unwise, for once of the age of maturity, they are expected to leave their homes of birth by way of marriage, taking with them any investment in human capital, and all prospects for future returns on such investment. A parallel view does not apply to boys, for tradition requires of them to sustain their family of birth, and to do so in perpetuity. It is this initial distortion in resource allocation between the sexes at the family level that further aggravates the already compromised social and economic status of women. Lacking in skills and educational credentials, they are compelled to employ their substantial natural talents in domestic activities, petty trading, or in subsistence farming. While honorable, in the sense that these activities make for a reasonable livelihood, and help support immediate and extended family networks, they are not undertaken by ‘free’ choice, and hardly conduce to high-income growth rates or self-fulfilling careers necessary for sustained economic self-sufficiency, and national economic growth.

There is now near universal consensus that both the level of education attained by citizens of a country, and the quality of education so received are major determining factors of domestic productivity. The comparative levels of educational attainment in different countries are not, however, determinative of differential economic growth rates, but are strongly correlative. In instances where the family of birth has sufficient resources to provide tertiary education for the girls, a major consideration that would discourage such commitment arises, not from the presumed absence of future returns on such expenditure, but from the pragmatic consideration of ‘marriageability.’ For, sadly, many African men are yet to be comfortable with the idea of marrying African women with advanced degrees; thus, to avoid educating herself out of marriage prospects, the family withholds needed support for education beyond a certain level. This cut-off line is in many instances a secondary school level certification. But this need to preserve marriage prospects for daughters by limiting the level of education they may acquire is not without cost; for it is this need to be eligible for marriage that deprives women of the skills they need to be economically self-sufficient, and once married become completely dependent on the husband for sustenance. In the many instances where the wife lacks marketable skills, the economic burden on the husband is low, thus he can afford to marry more and enjoy enhanced domestic services by doing less; herein lies the economistic incentive for polygamy. This dependence on husbands for economic well-being is a primary source of subjection of the African woman who fulfills both her wishes and those of society by becoming a wife; it is also from this source that some of the most vicious human rights abuses emanate, specifically the emotional and physical abuse visited upon many African women through privation and want of self-fulfillment. It is also through this vantage point that progressive public policy may be profitably implemented.

**Photo credit: Getty images.