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Legal status of polygamy

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Legal status of polygamy

  Polygamy permitted and practiced
  Legal status unknown or ambiguous
  Polygamy generally illegal, but practice not fully criminalised
  Polygamy fully outlawed/abolished and practice fully criminalised

1India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka: illegal in all forms, except for Muslims.
2Federal Eritrea: law bans polygamous marriage but certain countries and regions with Sharia allow it. Muslims only may legally contract polygamous marriages.

3Mauritius: polygamous unions are not legally recognized. Muslim men may "marry" up to four women, who do not however enjoy the legal status of wives.

In general, polygamy is legal in some countries in the form of polygyny. A majority of the world's countries and nearly all of the world's developed nations do not permit polygamy, and there have been growing calls for the abolition of polygyny in many developing countries. In the countries which do not permit polygamy, a person who marries a person while still being lawfully married to another commits bigamy. In all such cases, the second marriage is considered legally null and void. Besides the second and subsequent marriages being void, the bigamist is also liable to other penalties, which vary between jurisdictions.

Polygyny, the practice of one husband taking multiple wives, has been described as a form of human rights abuse. Many international human rights organizations, as well as women's rights groups in many countries, have called for its abolition.[1][2] In 2000, the United Nations Human Rights Committee considered polygamy (probably limited to polygyny) a violation of the internationally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the grounds that it violates the dignity of women, and recommended it be made illegal in all states.[3][4][5]

Countries that recognize polygamous marriages

Polygamous marriages are recognized civilly in nearly fifty countries, either dominated by Muslim or in the African continent.[6][7] In the Middle Eastern, polygyny is widespread with the exception of Israel, Turkey and Tunisia.[8] Almost a dozen countries that do not permit polygamous civil marriages recognize polygamous marriages under customary law, though in the eyes of the government, they are not considered to be genuine marriages. The single exception in North America is the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, which allows a simultaneous additional marital rights and obligations for already married persons, prior to married persons becoming divorced from existing spouses.[9] All northern states in Nigeria recognize polygamous marriages, as these states are governed by Islamic Sharia law.

The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand permit some benefits for spouses of polygamous marriages performed in other countries. India and Sri Lanka,[10] allow polygamous marriages only among Muslim citizens. Many Indians have converted to Islam in order to bypass such legal restrictions.[11] Predominantly Christian nations usually do not allow polygamy, with a handful of exceptions being the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Zambia. Myanmar (also known as Burma) is also the only predominately Buddhist nation to allow for civil polygamous marriages.[12]

The autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland in northern Somalia also recognize polygamy, as does the country's Transitional Federal Government itself, since the country is governed by Sharia law. The recently independent country of Southern Sudan also recognizes polygamy. The Palestinian territories — consisting of West Bank and Gaza Strip — permit polygamous unions for Muslim citizens of the territories.[13] The practice continues in Bhutan[14] in various forms as it has since ancient times. It is also found in parts of Nepal,[15] even despite its formal illegality in the country.[16]

Debates of legalizing polygamous marriages continue in Namibia, and many Central Asian countries.

Examples around the world

In most of the following examples, polygamy only refers to polygyny. Except when the converse is explicitly stated, either all kinds of polygamy are forbidden, or the only allowed form of polygamy is polygyny.


Mayotte: Considered to be de facto illegal since a referendum sponsored by France in March 2009, forcing the island to comply with French culture.[17][18] However, pre-existing Muslim marriages are currently still valid.

Benin: Benin recognized polygamous marriages until 2004 when they were constitutionally outlawed. However, pre-existing marriages are currently still valid in Benin.[19]

Burkina Faso: Both Muslims and non-Muslims can join in polygamous unions under Burkina Faso law.

Côte d'Ivoire: Akin to the situation in Benin, polygamy and such marriages were outlawed, though previous marriages are still recognized.[20]

Gabon: Both men and women can join in polygamous unions with the other gender under Gabonese law, although in practice only men do.

Ghana: Illegal.

Nigeria: Recognized in all northern sharia states, federal law recognizes polygamous unions under customary law.

South Africa: Legal under customary law, and recognised for civil purposes in terms of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act.

Kenya: Polygyny legal under legislation passed in 2014.[21]


Maldives: Permitted for all Muslim men with consent from the first wife.

Malaysia: Permitted for all Muslim men, up to a maximum of 4 wives.

Indonesia: Legal, though heavily restricted.

Afghanistan: Legal, frequently practiced.

Mongolia: Possible legislation of polygamy has been debated in hopes that it would even out Mongolia's male and female population. However, there has been no formal debate in the government, rather within the public.[22]

Iran: Legal with consent from the first wife.

Pakistan: Permitted for Muslim men only, can have up to 4 wives at one time according to Islamic Law with consent from the first wife.

Philippines Permitted for Muslim men only. Others face six to twelve years in prison.

Singapore: Legal for Muslim men who can demonstrate the financial means to support all potential wives, with consent from existing wives, up to a maximum of 4 wives.


France: Civil marriage registry illegal, still there are no laws against a person living with more than one partner/spouse. Stricter immigration laws have been enforced due to various polygamous-related hassles with immigrants from Mali and other African nations that permit polygamy.
Poland: Illegal, punishable with prison time.

Germany: Illegal, punishable with fine or prison time up to three years.[23]

Netherlands: Marriage between more than two individuals prohibited; however, a samenlevingscontract may include more than two partners.

Switzerland: Polygamy is illegal by law. But polygamous marriage conducted in another country may be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis.[24]

United Kingdom: Foreign polygamous marriages grant some welfare benefits only, but this is being phased out with the introduction of Universal Credit.[25] Polygamy is treated as bigamy if a second marriage (or civil partnership) is contracted in the United Kingdom. No legal recognition is extended to spouses of subsequent marriages after the first marriage is recognised even when subsequent marriages are contracted abroad.

North America

Bigamy laws throughout the United States
  All forms of cohabitation outlawed

United States: Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states.[26]
From about 1847 to 1857, in what is now the United States state of Utah, many Mormons practiced polygamy in defiance of the widespread view in the rest of the US. The US federal government threatened war and forced the Mormons to make polygamy illegal through the vigorous enforcement of Acts of Congress such as the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally abolished the practice in 1890, in a document labeled 'The Manifesto'.[27][28] Small splinter groups from the Mormon church, such as Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still practice polygamy and awareness has been increased through television dramas such as Big Love and reality shows such as Sister Wives.

Among American Muslims, a small minority of around 50,000 to 100,000 people are estimated to live in families with a husband maintaining an illegal polygamous relationship.[26]

Canada: All forms of polygamy, and some informal multiple sexual relationships, are illegal by Section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Bigamy is banned by Section 290. However, for a long time, the law banning polygamy has not been efficient. As of January 2009, no person had been successfully prosecuted, i.e., convicted in over sixty years.[28] In 2009, two acquittals prompted the attorney general of British Columbia to ask the Supreme Court of British Columbia whether challenging the law was consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and, if so, under what circumstances people can be legally punished for polygamy.[29]

In November, 2011 the court released its 335 pages long decision, which was that the polygamy abolition law is indeed constitutional, but that it should not be used to persecute minors for having taken part of a polygamous marriage.[30] Chief Justice Robert Bauman conceded that there is a conflict between this law and some civil right principles, but stated that there are other and "more important" issues which in this case take precedence. He wrote (as quoted by CBC news[30]):

"I have concluded that this case is essentially about harm. More specifically, Parliament's reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy. This includes harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage".

Bauman argued that there are cases where the "wives" (who may be rather young; sometimes as young as 12 years) are abducted and abused, but because they believe in a faith promoting polygamy, they are not willing to bring complaints to the authorities. He reasons that these offences sometimes may be stopped by applying anti-polygamy legislation.

The decision was welcomed by the attorney general of British Columbia, and by a representative for the group Stop Polygamy in Canada. Likewise, according to the CBC news,[30] some polyamorous groups in Canada expressed their relief, since Bauman had stated that the law shouldn't apply to them unless they decide to formalize their unions.

Women's rights were central to decision.[30]

See the map and template for more in-depth information.


Australia: Polygamy is still commonly practised amongst some of the indigenous population,[31] but polygamy based around state-sanctioned official marriage is illegal, and marriage to multiple spouses regardless of living circumstances would also be against the law as bigamy.

New Zealand: Polygamous marriages cannot be performed in New Zealand, but are permissible if they are legally performed in a country that permits polygamy.

Status disputed or unclear


Democratic Republic of the Congo – While the nation has been said to have legally recognized polygamous unions in the past, their current legal recognition is unknown.[32]

Swaziland – While some have thought that current laws could be interpreted to allow for legally-recognized polygamous unions, there is no legal recognition, still there are no laws against a man living with more than one woman, so the practice itself is not disallowed and even the king has thirteen spouses in 2010.[33]

South America

Brazil – A legally married person or a married couple cohabiting with one or more sexual partner(s) is prohibited by law. Known as bigamy, it is punishable by two to six years jailtime,[34] and is valid for every Brazilian citizen, including naturalized ones.

In May 5, 2011 long-term cohabitation between non-married persons, in one incident with a man and two women, known as união estável ("stable union"), was recognized as a family entity and granted all 112 rights of married couples – its only legal difference from marriage is that it does not change individual civil status from single to married. One of them, in Tupã, São Paulo, was registered as including a man and two women, as reported in August 2012. Doubts were thrown on its legality, as it was unclear whether it is in accordance with Brazilian law,.[35] It has not, however, set any precedence, and higher Brazilian courts have not permitted the practice.

Notable legislation

To permit polygamy

The table below covers recent pieces of legislation that have been either debated, proposed or voted on; all of which concern a form of polygamous union. The table does not cover legislation that restricts polygamy.

Country Date Polygamous union Upper House Lower house President Final
Yes No Yes No
Iraq 1963 Polygamous civil marriage (revoke of prohibitions)[36] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
United Kingdom 1987 or earlier Foreign marriages may receive benefits payments, being phased out[25]
Malawi 1994 Customary law (recognizes polygamous unions)[37] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Libya 1998 Polygamous civil marriage (abolishes wife's right to consent/reject additional wives)[38] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
South Africa 1998 Customary marriage (civil recognition)[39] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Namibia 2003 Customary law (recognizes polygamous unions)[40] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Namibia 2004 Pension benefits to wives of a deceased president[41] - Failed - No No
Uganda 2005 Polygamous civil marriage (easing of laws; plus restrictions) Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Kyrgyzstan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage[42] Failed - - - No No
Kazakhstan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage[42] Failed - - - No No
Uzbekistan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage Failed - - - No No
Tajikistan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage Failed - - - No No
Turkmenistan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage Failed - - - No No
Kazakhstan June 2008 Polygamous civil marriage[43] Failed - - - No No
Iran September 2008 Polygamous civil marriage (easing of laws)[44] Failed - - - No No
Namibia July 2009 Polygamous civil marriage[45] Proposed - - - -
Russia 2009 Polygamous civil marriage Proposed - - - -
Kenya March 2014 Polygamous civil marriage Passed[21] - - - Yes Yes

To outlaw polygamy

Country Date Prohibition type Upper House Lower house President Final
Yes No Yes No
United States July 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which made polygamy a misdemeanor offense in US territories and other areas where the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction. ' ' Signed Yes Yes
United States March 1882 Edmunds Act, which reinforced Morrill by making polygamy a felony in the jurisdictions covered by Morrill; also prohibited "bigamous" or "unlawful cohabitation" as a misdemeanor offense, which removed the need to prove that actual marriages had occurred in order to obtain convictions on polygamy related charges. Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Turkestan ASSR (modern Kyrgyzstan) October 1921 Outlaws polygamy[46] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Thailand October 1935 Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriage[47] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
North Vietnam (modern Vietnam) October 1950 Outlaws polygamy Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Syria 1953 Restrictions on polygamous marriage[36] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
India 1955 Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (Hindus only)[48] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Tunisia 1956 Ban on polygamy; polygamous marriages[49] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Iraq 1959 Ban on polygamy; polygamous marriage[36] Passed Passed Signed No Revoked
Côte d'Ivoire 1964 New penal code outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (upholds existing) Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
British Hong Kong (modern Hong Kong) 1971 Outlaws polygamy[50] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Eritrean People's Liberation Front (modern Eritrea) 1977 Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriage (districts under Sharia exempt)[51] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Egypt 1979 Restrictions on polygamous marriage; ease of divorce laws[49] Passed; abrogated - - - No No
Egypt 1985 Restrictions on polygamous marriage (less liberal)[49] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
France 1993 Outlaws family reunion for polygamist immigrants[52] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Uganda December 2003 Outlaws polygamy[53] Failed - - No No
Morocco 2003 Restrictions on polygamous marriage[49] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Benin August 2004 New penal code outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (upholds existing)[54] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Morocco February 2005 Restrictions on polygamous marriage (heavy restrictions)[55] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Uganda July 2005 Outlaws polygamy[56] Failed - - No No
Indonesia 2007 Bans civil servants from living polygamously[57] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Morocco May 2008 Restrictions on polygamous marriage (heavy restrictions) Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Uganda June 2008 Outlaws polygamy[53] Failed - - No No
Iraqi Kurdistan Nov. 2008 Abolishes polygamy except in selective circumstances[58] Passed Passed Signed Yes Yes
Mayotte March 2009 Mahoran status referendum, 2009 (passage abolishes polygamy)[59] Territory-wide Referendum Yes Yes
Turkey May 2009 Disallows polygamists from immigrating into the country[60] Yes Yes
Indonesia July 2009 Restrictions on polygamous marriage[61] Pending Pending - -
Namibia July 2009 Ban on polygamy & polygamous customary marriages Proposed - - - -

Recently proposed, failed, or pending efforts to limit polygamy

Country Description
Malawi A proposal to outlaw polygamy was defeated in 2008.
Uganda Another bill that would outlaw polygamy in the country was defeated in the legislature in 2008.
Saudi Arabia Women's groups within the United Nations have called on Saudi Arabia to outlaw polygamy. Most consider such a move extremely unlikely.
Egypt The complete abolishment of polygamy in Egypt has been the discussion of numerous political debates.
France Stricter sanctions against polygamist foreign residents have been implemented in attempt to battle polygamy within the immigrant community.
Indonesia A proposal that would limit polygamy even further is being considered in the legislature.
Namibia A bill that would ban polygamous unions from being recognized by customary law and additionally, outlaw all forms of polygamy, has been submitted to the legislature.
United States A senator from Nevada has announced his intentions to introduce a bill that would create further sanctions against polygamy.
Indonesia Feminist groups and individuals have stated their intent to work for the complete abolition of polygamy and ban polygamous marriage in the country.


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