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Legality of Polygamy

The legal status of polygamy varies widely around the world. Polygyny is legal in 58 out of nearly 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of them being Muslim-majority countries in Africa and Asia. Polyandry is illegal in virtually every country. A number of countries permit polygyny among Muslims in their communities. Some countries that permit polygyny have restrictions, such as requiring the first wife to give her consent. In countries that ban polygamy, the offence is commonly called bigamy, though the penalty varies between jurisdictions. In some countries where polygamy is illegal, the prohibition is not enforced.

polygamy polygyny legal status

1. Countries That Recognize Polygamous Marriages

1.1. Africa

  • Algeria[1]
  • Cameroon[2]
  • Chad[3]
  • Central African Republic[4]
  • Republic of the Congo[5]
  • Djibouti[6]
  • Egypt[7]
  • Gabon:[8] Both men and women can join in polygamous marriage with the other gender under Gabonese law. In practice, the right to multiple spouses is reserved for men only.[9]
  • The Gambia[10]
  • Guinea[11]
  • Libya[12][13][14]
  • Kenya: Polygymy legal under legislation passed in 2014.[15]
  • Mali[16]
  • Mauritania[17]
  • Morocco[18]
  • Nigeria (only in some states)[19]
  • São Tomé and Príncipe[20]
  • Senegal[21]
  • Somalia[22]
  • South Sudan[23]
  • Sudan[24]
  • Eswatini[25]
  • Togo[26]
  • Tanzania[27]
  • Uganda[28]
  • Zambia[29]

1.2. Asia

  • Afghanistan[30]
  • Bahrain[31]
  • Bangladesh[32]
  • Bhutan[33][34]
  • Brunei[35]
  • Indonesia (except for in the provinces of Maluku, North Maluku, Papua, and West Papua) [36]
  • Iran[37]
  • Iraq (except for in Iraqi Kurdistan)[38]
  • Jordan[39]
  • Kuwait[40]
  • Lebanon[41]
  • Maldives[42]
  • Oman[43]
  • Qatar[44]
  • Pakistan[45]
  • Saudi Arabia[46]
  • Sri Lanka[47][48][49]
  • Syria (except in Syrian Kurdistan)[50]
  • United Arab Emirates[51]
  • Yemen[52]

1.3. Oceania

  • Solomon Islands[53]

2. Countries That Only Recognize Polygamous Marriages for Muslims

2.1. Asia

  • Malaysia[54]
  • Philippines[55]
  • Singapore.
  • India.

3. Countries That Do Not Recognize Polygamous Marriages

3.1. Africa

  • Benin[56]
  • Côte d'Ivoire: Polygamy may be punishable by six months to three years imprisonment, or a fine of CFA 50,000 to CFA 500,000 (US$80 to US$800).[57]
  • Eritrea: Illegal since 1977, after 2015 polygamy is punishable with "a definite term of imprisonment of not less than 6 months and not more than 12 months, or a fine of 20,001 – 50,000 Nakfas."[58]
  • Ethiopia[59][60]
  • Seychelles
  • Tunisia, where it has been banned since 1956[61]

Under customary law

  • Botswana[62]
  • Lesotho[63]
  • Liberia[64]
  • Malawi[65]
  • Namibia[66]
  • Niger[67]
  • Nigeria (only in some states):[68] Recognized in all northern Sharia states
  • Sierra Leone[69]
  • South Africa:[70] Recognized under customary law, and recognised for civil purposes in terms of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act.
  • Zimbabwe[71]

Illegal de jure but still practiced

  • Angola[72]
  • Burkina Faso [73]
  • Burundi[74]
  • Cabo Verde[75]
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo[76]
  • Equatorial Guinea[77][78][79]
  • Ghana[80][81]
  • Madagascar [82]
  • Mauritius
  • Mayotte (French territory) (not criminalized): Considered to be de facto illegal since a referendum sponsored by France in March 2009, forcing the island to comply with the French laws.[83][84] However, pre-existing Muslim marriages are currently still valid.
  • Mozambique[85]
  • Rwanda[86]

3.2. Americas

  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Argentina
  • Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Belize
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil: Bigamy is illegal but the practice is decriminalized, having led to newsworthy accounts of cohabitation.[87]
  • Canada: All forms of polygamy, and some informal multiple sexual relationships, are illegal under section 293 of the Criminal Code.[88] Bigamy is banned by section 290.[89] 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.[90] In 2009, two acquittals on polygamy charges, arising out of the town of Bountiful, British Columbia, prompted the government of British Columbia to pose a reference question to the Supreme Court of British Columbia (i.e., the superior trial court). The reference questions asked if criminalisation of polygamy was consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and, if so, under what circumstances could people be legally punished for polygamy.[91] In November 2011 the court released its 335 page long decision, which was that the criminal offence of polygamy is indeed constitutional, but that it should not be used to prosecute minors for having taken part of a polygamous marriage.[92] 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[92]): "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,[92] 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.[92]
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Dominica
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Grenada
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • St. Kitts and Nevis
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Vincent and The Grenadines
  • Suriname
  • Trinidad and Tobago
Bigamy laws throughout the United States.
  • United States: Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states[93] however in Utah, in February, 2020, the law was significantly changed in the House and Senate to reduce polygamy to the status of a traffic ticket.[4] It is still illegal federally according to the Edmunds Act . From about 1847 to 1857, in what is now the state of Utah, many Mormons practiced polygamy, which was widely condemned in the rest of the US. The US federal government threatened The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and made polygamy illegal through the enforcement of Acts of Congress such as the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. The LDS Church formally outlawed the practice in 1890, in a document labeled 'The Manifesto'.[90][94] Small splinter groups from the LDS Church, such as Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Apostolic United Brethren 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 informal polygamous relationship.[93]
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela

3.3. Asia

  • Nepal
  • China: Polygamy is illegal under Marriage Law passed in 1980, which replaced a similar 1950 prohibition.[95] In Hong Kong, polygamy ended with the passing of the Marriage Act of 1971.
  • Israel: Polygamy has been banned for all confessional communities since at least 1959.[96]
  • Japan
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar[97]
  • North Korea[98]
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan: Polygamy is illegal by the 1930 ROC civil law.[99]
  • Tajikistan
  • Turkey: Polygamy was criminalized in 1926 with the adoption of the Turkish Civil Code, part of Atatürk's secularist reforms. Penalties for polygamy are imprisonment of up to 5 years.[100] Turkey has long been known for its promotion of secularism,[101][102][103] and has introduced measures establishing stricter bars against polygamy; these were passed by the ruling moderate Islamist AK Parti as well. In March 2009, AK Parti effectively banned polygamists from entering or living in the country.[104]
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vietnam

Under customary law

  • Palestine[105]

Illegal de jure but still practiced

  • Cambodia[106]
  • Israel: polygamy was criminalized in 1977, but the law is not consistently enforced and polygamy is still practiced by Israeli Bedouins.[107]
  • Kazakhstan[108]
  • Laos
  • Russia:[109][110] Factual polygamy and sexual relationships with several adult partners are not punishable in accordance with current revisions of Criminal Code of Russia and Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses. But multiple marriage can't be registered and officially recognised by Russian authorities because Family Code of Russia (section 14 and others) prohibits registration of marriage if one of the persons is in another registered marriage in Russia or another country. Polygamy is tolerated in predominantly Muslim republics such as Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.[111]
  • Thailand[112]
  • Timor-Leste[113]

3.4. Europe

  • Albania
  • Andorra
  • Armenia
  • Austria
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Belgium
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria: Illegal and punishable with up to three years imprisonment.[114]
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland: The official prosecutor is obliged to take all cases to a court where more two persons are married to each other and such relationships cease to exist after the court has decided it.[115] Polygamic marriages performed abroad may be recognized only in narrow occasions, for instance in child custody matters.[116]
  • France: Civil marriage registry illegal.
  • Georgia
  • Germany: Illegal, legally punishable with fine or prison time up to three years.[117] Polygamous marriages contracted abroad are legal, however the German authorities announced plans to close this legal loophole.[118]
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland:[119] The Catholic Church in Ireland allowed someone with a church annulment but no civil annulment to remarry in church; such a marriage was legally null and bigamous but no prosecutions were brought.[120][121] The practice ended after the 1996 legalisation of divorce.[120] In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that if someone had two legal marriages abroad, only the first was legal in Ireland, though 'that did not necessarily mean [the second] marriage "can never have legal consequences [in Ireland]"'.[122]
  • Italy
  • Kosovo
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia
  • Malta
  • Moldova
  • Monaco
  • Montenegro
  • Netherlands: Marriage between more than two individuals prohibited; however, a samenlevingscontract may include more than two partners. It legally accepts immigrants who are in such a union from a country where it is legal; e.g. if a man with two wives immigrates to The Netherlands, all three will be legally recognized.[123]
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania: Bigamy, defined as marriage conducted by a person which is already married, is punishable by up to 2 years in prison or fine. Knowingly marrying a married person is punishable by up to 1 year in prison or by fine.[124]
  • Russian Federation
  • San Marino
  • Serbia
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden: Sweden recognizes polygamous marriages performed abroad, and all spouses are subsequently registered as spouses in the population register, but other spouses than the first spouse may not always be recognized in all occasions.[125][126][127] Only the first spouse is recognized as a spouse when decisions are made on residence permits and social security.[125] A Swede may have four spouses registered at most.[126]
  • Switzerland: Polygamy is illegal by law. But polygamous marriage conducted in another country may be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis.[128]
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom: Foreign polygamous marriages grant some welfare benefits only, but this is being phased out with the introduction of Universal Credit.[129] 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.
  • Vatican City (Holy See)

3.5. Oceania

  • Australia: Polygamous marriages cannot be performed in Australia, but polygamous relationships are still common within some indigenous Australian communities.[130][131] Polygamous marriages entered into abroad are recognised for limited purposes only.[132]
  • Fiji
  • Kiribati
  • Marshall Islands
  • Micronesia
  • Nauru
  • New Zealand: Polygamous marriages cannot be performed in New Zealand, but are permissible if they are legally performed in a country that permits polygamy.
  • Palau
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu

4. Current Legislation

In most countries, a person who marries a person while still being lawfully married to another commits bigamy, a criminal offence, though penalties vary between jurisdictions. In addition, the second and subsequent marriages are considered legally null and void.

The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand permit some benefits for spouses of polygamous marriages performed abroad. On a case-by-case basis, Sweden recognizes polygamous marriages performed abroad but without giving residence or social security rights to other spouses.[125][126] In Switzerland polygamous marriages conducted abroad may be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis;[133] see § Europe. In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, which allows simultaneous, additional marital rights and obligations for already married persons, prior to married persons becoming divorced from their existing spouse.[134]

The vast majority of Muslim majority sovereign states recognize polygamous marriages: these states span from West Africa to Southeast Asia, with exceptions of Israel, Turkey and Tunisia.[135] The Palestinian territories — consisting of West Bank and Gaza Strip — permit polygamous unions for Muslim citizens of the territories.[136]

Predominantly Christian nations usually do not allow polygamy, with a handful of exceptions such as the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Zambia.

Almost a dozen countries that do not permit polygamous civil marriages recognize polygamous marriages under customary law. All the northern states in Nigeria governed by Islamic Sharia law recognize polygamous marriages. 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.

Polyandry is de facto the norm in rural areas of Tibet, although it is illegal under Chinese family law. Polygamy continues in Bhutan[34] in various forms as it has since ancient times. It is also found in parts of Nepal,[137] despite its formal illegality in the country.[138]

Debates of legalizing polygamous marriages continue in Central Asian countries.

4.1. Civil Unions

Brazil – A legally married person or a married couple cohabiting with one or more sexual partner(s) is prohibited by law as bigamy, which is punishable by two to six years of imprisonment,[139] and is valid for every Brazilian citizen, including naturalized ones.

In 5 May 2011 long-term cohabitation between non-married persons, known as união estável ("stable union"), was extended to same-sex couples, 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 such uniões estáveis, in Tupã, São Paulo, was registered involving a man and two women, as reported in August 2012.[140] A second união estável-bound trio took place in the city of Rio de Janeiro, this time between three women, in October 2015.[141][142]

4.2. International Law

In 2000, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reported that polygamy violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), citing concerns that the lack of "equality of treatment with regard to the right to marry" meant that polygamy, restricted to polygyny in practice, violates the dignity of women and should be outlawed.[143] Specifically, the reports to UN Committees have noted violations of the ICCPR due to these inequalities[144] and reports to the General Assembly of the UN have recommended it be outlawed.[145][146]

Some countries where polygamy is legal are not signatories of ICCPR, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Malaysia, Brunei and South Sudan; so that ICCPR does not apply to these countries.[147] It has been argued by the Department of Justice of Canada that polygyny is a violation of international human rights law.[148]

5. Notable Legislation

The tables below cover recent pieces of legislation that have been either debated, proposed or voted on; all of which concern a form of polygamous union.

5.1. To Permit Polygamy

Country Date Polygamous union Upper House Lower House Head of State Final
Yes No Yes No
Iraq 1963 Polygamous civil marriage (revoke of prohibitions)[149] Passed Passed Signed  Yes
United Kingdom 1987 or earlier Foreign marriages may receive benefits payments, being phased out[129]          
Malawi 1994 Customary law (recognizes polygamous unions)[150] Passed Passed Signed  Yes
Libya 1998 Polygamous civil marriage [151] Passed Passed Signed  Yes
South Africa 1998 Customary marriage (civil recognition)[152] Passed Passed Signed  Yes
Namibia 2003 Customary law (recognizes polygamous unions)[153] Passed Passed Signed  Yes
Namibia 2004 Pension benefits to wives of a deceased president[154] - Failed -  No
Uganda 2005 Polygamous civil marriage (easing of laws; plus restrictions) Passed Passed Signed  Yes
Kyrgyzstan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage[155] Failed - - -  No
Kazakhstan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage[155] Failed - - -  No
Uzbekistan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage Failed - - -  No
Tajikistan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage Failed - - -  No
Turkmenistan 2007 Polygamous civil marriage Failed - - -  No
Kazakhstan June 2008 Polygamous civil marriage[156] Failed - - -  No
Iran September 2008 Polygamous civil marriage (easing of laws)[157] Failed - - -  No
Namibia July 2009 Polygamous civil marriage[158] Proposed - - - -
Russia 2009 Polygamous civil marriage Proposed - - - -
Kenya March 2014 Polygamous civil marriage Passed[15] - - -  Yes

5.2. To Outlaw Polygamy

Country Date Prohibition type Upper House Lower House Head of State 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
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
Turkestan ASSR (modern Kyrgyzstan) October 1921 Outlaws polygamy[159] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Thailand October 1935 Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriage[160] Passed Passed Signed Yes
North Vietnam (modern Vietnam) October 1950 Outlaws polygamy Passed Passed Signed Yes
Syria 1953 Restrictions on polygamous marriage[149] Passed Passed Signed Yes
India 1955 Outlaws polygamy and polygamous marriages for Hindus only[161] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Tunisia 1956 Ban on polygamy; polygamous marriages[162] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Iraq 1959 Ban on polygamy; polygamous marriage[149] Passed Passed Signed Revoked
Côte d'Ivoire 1964 New penal code outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (upholds existing) Passed Passed Signed Yes
British Hong Kong (modern Hong Kong) 1971 Outlaws polygamy[163] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Eritrean People's Liberation Front (modern Eritrea) 1977 Outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriage (districts under Sharia exempt)[164] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Egypt 1979 Restrictions on polygamous marriage; ease of divorce laws[162] Passed; abrogated - - - No
Egypt 1985 Restrictions on polygamous marriage (less liberal)[162] Passed Passed Signed Yes
France 1993 Outlaws family reunion for polygamist immigrants[165] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Uganda December 2003 Outlaws polygamy[166] Failed - - No
Morocco 2003 Restrictions on polygamous marriage[162] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Benin August 2004 New penal code outlaws polygamy; polygamous marriages (upholds existing)[167] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Morocco February 2005 Restrictions on polygamous marriage (heavy restrictions)[168] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Uganda July 2005 Outlaws polygamy[169] Failed - - No
Indonesia 2007 Bans civil servants from living polygamously[170] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Morocco May 2008 Restrictions on polygamous marriage (heavy restrictions) Passed Passed Signed Yes
Uganda June 2008 Outlaws polygamy[166] Failed - - No
Template:Country data Kurdistan Iraqi Kurdistan Nov. 2008 Outlaws polygamy except in selective circumstances[171] Passed Passed Signed Yes
Mayotte March 2009 2009 Mahoran status referendum (passage outlaws polygamy)[172] Territory-wide referendum Yes
Turkey May 2009 Disallows polygamists from immigrating into the country[173]       Yes
Indonesia July 2009 Restrictions on polygamous marriage[174] Pending Pending - -
Namibia July 2009 Ban on polygamy and polygamous customary marriages Proposed - - - -


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