The BBC reports that in a document allegedly written by the Department of Religious Affairs of the East African country, polygamy for Eritreans is no longer a matter of choice.
By law, the men are now required to marry at least two wives, or face life imprisonment with hard labour. Similarly, women who attempt to prevent their husbands from exercising the law would spend the rest of their lives in jail.
According to the document, which has been circulating over the internet, the government of Eritrea, which is currently facing a shortage of male population following the civil war with Ethiopia, is willing to cover the necessary wedding and accommodation expenses in a show of good faith towards fulfilling the set mission. The memo is yet to receive official verification or be re-produced in the country’s other national languages.
Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, resulting from a dispute over borders. The situation between both countries within this period remained hostile and the feeling carried on well after a peace deal was signed in 2000. The war cost Eritrea about 150,000 soldiers which ultimately affected its male population, as the country is populated by only about four million people.
A quick look at the reason behind why the Eritrean government would brazenly interfere in the lives of its citizens shows both a religious and historical backing. Polygamy – or more precisely as in this case, polygyny – is not the reserve of any one religion or culture, as history proves. Its foundation in religions such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, among others, is built on incidences where there were casualties of war or fatalities and a need to repopulate the affected societies.
Thus, while the ideology behind the Eritrean government’s latest decision is understandable, it certainly does not create an excuse for coercion in such matters. The Qur’an categorically states that polygamy must not be forced upon anyone and should only be practiced when convenient for the parties involved.
The Qur’an permits a man to marry up to four wives, provided he can support and treat them all equally. Muslims regard this Qur’anic command as strengthening the status of women and the family for it sought to ensure the welfare of single women and widows in a society whose male population was diminished by warfare, and to curb unrestricted polygamy (John Esposito: Islam the Straight Path, p.97).
Regardless, contemporary times have witnessed a shift from polygamous societies to more monogamous and ‘free’ ones. Therefore, forcing citizens of a country to participate or face legal consequences is far from acceptable.
In 2014, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta legalized polygamy, with no limit on the number of wives that a man can marry. Due to this event, Kenyans are reportedly lauding the decision of the Eritrean government on the matter. Other African countries where polygamy remains illegal include Ghana, Ethiopia, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Angola, Tunisia, Rwanda, and Burundi.