Polygamy and education in Africa: an unusual couple

Picture by Doug Linstedt on Unsplash

Picture by Doug Linstedt on Unsplash

In the 1950s, West Africa was on the eve of decolonisation. In a last gasp of imperialism, the French and British opened up public services and developed mass education. Over the same period, polygamy declined throughout the region. Economic researchers are asking whether there is a link between the level of education and this marital status.

By Yannick Dupraz

Yannick Dupraz

Auteur scientifique, CNRS, AMSE

Sophie Bourlet

Sophie Bourlet

Journaliste scientifique

Polygamy is a matrimonial regime that allows people to enter into several legitimate unions. There are two forms: polygyny, where a man has several wives, and polyandry, where a woman has several husbands.The second situation being rare, polygamy commonly indicates the case of a man with multiple female companions.

Although polygamy now affects only 2% of the world's population, according to the Pew Research Center, it was much more common in the middle of the last century. Today, it is mainly found in rural areas of West and Central Africa. In France, it has officially been banned since 24 August 1993.


After the Second World War in Cameroon, the colonial government opened numerous schools, providing mass education for many young people, particularly girls. In economics, however, the causal link between education and a reduction in polygamy has never been demonstrated. In their study, "Education and polygamy: Evidence from Cameroon", published in the Journal of Development Economics in 2023, researchers Yannick Dupraz and Pierre André sought to identify whether the opening of schools during this period may have affected polygamy.

More schoolchildren, no more polygamists?

Several hypotheses could explain the observed decrease in polygamy in parallel with the increase in education. The transmission of Western cultural norms by teachers in secular or Christian schools may have encouraged monogamy. Educating women can be a source of emancipation and increase their bargaining power with their families when it comes to choosing a husband. They could also choose more easily to leave their husbands when they wish to take a second wife.

The study covers the end of the colonial period between the Second World War and independence on 1 January 1960, in rural Cameroon. The French and British had been under mandate there since the end of the First World War and, sensing the tide turning, violently repressed any desire for independence. In an attempt to quell popular discontent and with a view to assimilation, they invested massively in health and education.

In Cameroonian villages where a school had been opened, two cohorts were selected for this study: girls who were under 7 years of age at the time the school opened and who had been able to benefit from the school, and girls who were over 17 years of age at the time the school opened and who had passed the age of being able to benefit from it. Comparing these two groups in 1976, several years after the opening of the school, makes it possible to study the effect of the opening of the school on marital status. The results show that polygamy increased among men but, surprisingly and contrary to the hypotheses mentioned above, polygamy also increased among women who had had access to education. 

close-up of black hands exchanging wedding rings

Picture by Andrew Itaga on Unsplash

Polygamy favoured by homogamy

For men, it makes sense: they have an educational background and can access a better job and a better financial situation. In rural areas, it is these same men who are encouraged to take a second wife, as they are financially able to do so. The majority of men belonging to the local elite are polygamous, and being polygamous is important and prestigious for men who are capable of it.

For women, on the other hand, it's more complex. The more educated are also more likely to be polygamists. They are looking for a partner who is equally educated and well off. It is precisely these men, by virtue of their situation, who are most likely to be polygamous. 

Seeking to form a couple with someone who shares your social status and level of education is what is known in economics as homogamy. For example, according to INSEE, in 1999 almost one French couple in three was made up of people from the same social position, twice as many than if the couples had formed at random. Cameroon at the time was no exception to this social determinant.

The nature of the school also influences the use of polygamy. The study shows that girls who have been to public and secular schools are more likely to be polygamous. Polygamy was not condemned by public schools and was even included in school textbooks. For example, Mamadou et Bineta, a reference book for learning to read, depicts polygamous couples. On the other hand, girls who have attended Christian missionary schools are less likely to be polygamous, probably because monogamous marriage is encouraged. 

The researchers have identified that women who are educated and in polygamous unions have the status of first wife and therefore start out in a monogamous union. This is a more important role, with primacy of decision within the household over the other wives. The women concerned either married future polygamists, accepting the high social status of first wife, or were unaware of the arrival of other future partners. As a result, educated women are more likely to be in a polygamous union.

Inequality between women and men

In the 1950s, Cameroon was a very poor country whose mining and agricultural resources had been confiscated by the colonial regimes. In rural areas, land and marriage are important economic decisions for women and their families, and the aim is to create a new economic production unit. In this marriage market, it is education that comes into play, even though it has little impact on women, who face systemic barriers and are denied access to certain careers. The results of the study do not show that women prefer polygamy. Given a choice between two equally wealthy husbands, they might well have chosen a monogamous husband, had it been possible. 

With public schools out of the picture, it is more likely that the Christian missions that were heavily subsidised by the French government between the wars, and their hostility to this marital status, were responsible for the decline in polygamy, according to many researchers and anthropologists. However, the relationship between the two is complex. Researcher Walker-Said1  documents, for example, how Christian missionaries attempting to transform marriage in Africa came into conflict with the French colonial state, which wished to maintain privileged relations with local chiefs, necessary to administer taxes. Other researchers have shown that the closer a highly polygamous population was to a mission, the less it attended its schools, because it disagreed with monogamy, leading to lower enrolment rates than elsewhere. The question of the compatibility of Christianity - and the vision of the couple widely propagated by Western culture as a result of globalisation - with polygamy is now widely debated. Is it neo-colonialism or ethnocentrism to want to do away with one age-old model in favour of another?

  • 1Walker-Said, C., 2018. "Faith, Power and Family. Christianity and Social Change in French Cameroon". Cahiers d’études africaines, 234, Article 234
Wide shot of a Catholic mission and more precisely of a classroom in Yaoundé, Cameroon

Photo caption: Catholic Mission, School in Yaoundé © Frédéric Gadmer / Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine

Ethical or not, polygamy stems from inequality between men, but also between men and women. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, while 39% of Cameroon's national population were living below the poverty line since 2019, this rate rises to 51.5% for women. 79.2% of them are underemployed. Polygamy is regarded as discrimination by the UN, the Commission on Human Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the "Maputo Protocol") takes a more pragmatic approach, given that polygamy is still widespread. It stipulates that "monogamy is encouraged as the preferred form of marriage. The rights of women in marriage and within the family, including polygamous conjugal relationships, shall be defended and preserved". This is a right that is difficult to protect: in Cameroon today, 43.2% of women living  in a union are victims of domestic violence.

Translated from French by

Translated from french by Cate Evans


André P., Dupraz Y., 2023, « Education and polygamy : Evidence from Cameroon. Journal of Development Economics », 162, 103068.