According to a recent survey, the rate of polygamy in Senegal declined marginally in 2015 in comparison to previous years. But the results of another study, which outlines the reasons why more Western-educated men in Senegal are entering into polygamous marriages, is set to get people talking. The overwhelming majority of the men interviewed gave similar responses and the study outlines the seven most popular reasons men gave for taking a second, third or fourth wife.

The first was that the additional wife was “a decision by my mother” since the first, second or third wife was taken without her consent. In Senegal, there is a privileged relationship between Senegalese mothers and their sons, especially in the case of the eldest and the last son, known as ‘thiaat’. Added to that is the strong notion that the mother is the stabilising factor in the family and hence can introduce that quality by selecting a wife for her sons.

The second is that the decision was “a sacred one made by my marabout”. The majority of Senegalese are Muslim (95%) and nearly every Muslim individual or family has a marabout, who is basically a spiritual guide and has an influential role in family matters. In many instances, the women chosen by these ‘holy and wise men’ are selected from the same daaras or religious school or area as their husband.

The third reason given for taking another wife is to lighten the workload. As one respondent said, “I wanted to make her (the first wife) work much lighter and easier.” In the national vernacular, this reason is better articulated by the expression ‘dama la outalrak’. The literal translation is: “I decided to choose a younger sister for her.”

The fourth reason is: “My wife cannot have children and I need at least one.” In such cases, it is often, but not always, the first wife who suggests to the husband that he takes a second wife.

The fifth reason given, which is tied to family obligation, is: “The woman is my uncle’s daughter and I cannot refuse.” In this case, it is the uncle who will oblige his nephew to take his daughter into wedlock. Refusals very often lead to family disputes or discord.

The sixth reason is “it is my father who selected and paid the bride price for me”. When this reason is proffered to the first wife, she is expected to put herself in her husband’s position and be easily convinced.

Finally, the humanitarian reason damakoyeureum is given. The translation from Wolof would be: “She was in a difficult situation and I only meant to help her out but eventually it turned into a marriage.”

The power in marital relations may rest overwhelmingly with men but according to a recent study conducted by the Institute for Research and Development, 80% of divorce cases are initiated by women. In Dakar alone, 10 205 couples divorced in 2015 and 893 since the beginning of 2016. This at least demonstrates a shift in the possibility of more equal marriages, however subtle it may be.