Polygamy and poverty culture impacts women in rural Africa

Gertrude Pswarayi – Women News Network – WNN MDG Stories

Zimbabwe women
Zimbabwean women walk beside road. Image: Frederica Olivieri

Midlands Province, Zimbabwe: Sesedzai Rupuwu owns nothing except the tattered clothes that are neatly packed in her small, faded suitcase.

She does not own a home or any household property. She is not allowed to.

Rupuwu has an aged, wrinkled face that betrays her mere 48 years. She walks with a sluggish step and a hunched back, the result of the heavy manual work in the farms where she spent most of her life. In combination with her tattered, dirty clothes, she looks like a beggar.

Rupuwu was married to Chaplin Rupuwu, 52, for 20 years. She gave birth to six children. Like most marriages, she and her husband had a blissful, promising start. They owned little, but were determined to improve their welfare. The couple started a small commercial agriculture business almost two decades ago. They secured a small piece of land and began growing vegetables and other cash crops.

After a few years, Rupuwu decided to go to a vocational training center to learn more about farming. She says her husband was very supportive and encouraged her in her studies. Upon completing her training, the government allocated her a bigger piece of land. She and her husband built a few nice houses and started poultry and piggery projects in addition to their ongoing vegetable crops.

Rupuwu says it was the success of her projects, ironically, that led her to her new life of poverty. Once a successful business woman, today, she is dirt poor.

“I regret ever getting married. It is very painful to lose everything just because I am a woman. I worked so hard to build that home, but I was chased away without a cent,” says Rupuwu.

Tribal Culture Promotes Patriarchy

It was her ambition, she says, that triggered a change in her husband. Once an enthusiastic supporter, he became removed, isolating. Rupuwu says as they accumulated more wealth, her husband began drinking and socializing with other women. At times, she says, her husband would spend days away, enjoying himself with other women at a local business center.

Rupuwu says she had hoped it was just a phase and her husband would realize “the folly of his actions.” “But one day I got the shock of my life when he brought home another woman and presented her as his wife,” Rupuwu recalls.

What followed, according to Rupuwu, was “a serious brawl,” that left her over-powered, alone and poor. She was forced to leave all six of her children and every possession behind.

Despite the country’s urban political turbulence, most rural communities in Zimbabwe are still governed under patriarchal rules that permit polygamy and exclude women from property rights.

According to the Shona culture, the largest tribal group here, children and large family assets, like land and houses, belong to the husband. In a relationship in Shona culture, a woman can only have control over small things, like the chickens, pots and blankets. When a couple separates or divorces, wives typically only take kitchen utensils.

Polygamy is common in rural Zimbabwe. Though prohibited under civil law, polygamous marriages are often performed under the nations customary law, which, ironically, is recognized by the national Customary Marriage Act.

In rural areas, a man is regarded as successful if he has several wives and children. Religiously, the apostolic sect, which has a large following in Zimbabwe, encourages men to take several wives. According to the Social Institutions and Gender Index, as many as 10 percent of women in Zimbabwe are in polygamous marriages.

Wadzanayi Vere, 33, the executive director of Self Help Development Foundation – Training and Advisory Services (SHDF-TAS), a local non-governmental organization that is working to elevate women’s rights and reduce poverty through sustainable development, says women in Zimbabwe play a peripheral role in decision making at all levels.

“The majority of women have no say in decision-making — from household to national issues. Women do not feature prominently in political, economic and social structures, yet they constitute 52 percent of the Zimbabwean population,” says Vere.

Vere says that women have so far failed to use their majority to influence the passing of laws that abolish some patriarchal practices that hinder their effective participation in the economic sector. SHDF-TAS is in the process of implementing a program that seeks to change existing gender roles in order to create greater equality of influence, opportunity and benefit for women.

Julie Stewart, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe feels that women’s rights are recognized under international instruments such as CEDAW and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. However, Stewart notes that although Zimbabwe has ratified the international statutes, the problem still exists because the laws are ignored in rural areas. She says women are often not aware of their rights, which makes them vulnerable to abuse.

“Women have a right to equal participation in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes, adequate living conditions, water supply, transport and communication, nutritious and adequate food and access to clean water for drinking and good sources of domestic fuel,” Stewart says, noting that though the provisions exist on paper, they have been impossible to implement on the ground.

For Rupuwu and other women in a similar situations, the patriarchal systems have proven impossible to rise above. Rupuwu says she will never enter into any matrimonial relationship again. She is certain that she will never have any claims to her children, but says she hopes that they will come to visit her when they are old enough.


Zimbabwean reporter Gertrude Pswarayi has a passion for “telling unheard stories that remain silent and on the margins of society.” Her outstanding work as a journalists includes a mission to educate the public on the searing issues and to ultimately change society through her stories.


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