Polygamy in India

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Year-wise developments

2019-20

Rema Nagarajan , July 28, 2022: The Times of India

Polygamy in India, 2004-20, state- and district-wise
From: Rema Nagarajan , July 28, 2022: The Times of India

Polygyny or the practice of having more than one wife is legal in India only for Muslims, but National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data shows it is almost as prevalent in other communities, though on the decline in all. The latest NFHS data from 2019-20 shows the prevalence of polygyny was 1. 9% among Muslims, 1. 3% among Hindus and 1. 6% among other religious groups.


This was revealed in an analysis of data from the three NFHS rounds of 2005-06, 2015-16 and 2019-20 done by faculty from the International Institute of Population Studies in Mumbai, which also conducts the NFHS. “Overall, polygynous marriage was found to be higher among poor, uneducated, rural and older women. It indicated that socio-economic factors also played a role in this form of marriage in addition to region and religion,” stated the authors of the recently published research brief, adding that the prevalence of polygyny in India was very low and fading away.


The prevalence of polygyny here is the percentage of married women in the 15-49 age group who indicate that their partner has more than one wife. In India, polygynous marriages have decreased from 1. 9% in 2005-06 to 1. 4% in 2019-20. The northeastern states with high tribal populations have the highest proportion of women reporting polygyny, ranging from 6. 1% in Meghalaya to 2% in Tripura. The southern states and those in the east like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal have higher prevalence of polygyny than North India. 
Among caste groups, polygyny is most prevalent among scheduled tribes, at 2. 4%, a decline from 3. 1% in 2005-06, followed by scheduled castes (1. 5% in 2019-20 as against 2. 2% in 2005-06). Thus, states with a higher proportion of tribal population seem to have the highest prevalence of polygyny. 
The broad patterns, however, have exceptions. For instance, while there is a higher prevalence of polygyny among Muslims than among Hindus in most states, the opposite is true in states like Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu.


TOI looked at the 40 districts identified by the study as those with the highest prevalence of polygamous marriages. Analysing this list with data from the Census on female literacy as well as the share of religious groups and tribals in the total population showed that no single background characteristic could be attributed as the reason for higher prevalence of polygyny, though predominantly tribal districts seem to have high prevalence ranging from a high of 20% in the East Jaintia Hills district in Meghalaya to Anuppur in Madhya Pradesh at the 40th place with 3. 9%.


Among religious groups, polygyny was most common among “others” (2. 5%), followed by Christians (2. 1%), Muslims (1. 9%) and Hindus (1. 3%). The high prevalence among Christians could be because of northeastern states, where the practice is more common.

The survey also found polygynous marriages were more prevalent among the poorest women and women with no formal education than among those who had higher educational qualifications. However, the higher prevalence of polygyny in districts in Tamil Nadu and the Northeast with very high literacy rates shows that it is not just about literacy. In all rounds of NFHS, polygynous marriages were higher among older women aged 35 years and above, partly an indication of the practice being on the decline.


See also

Handicapped persons and the law: India

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