Having multiple husbands can be beneficial in tough times for some women, study finds

DAVIS, Calif. — Who says marriage has to be about love? According to a new long-term study focusing on a rural village in Tanzania, Africa, local women protect themselves and their children from harsh economic and social conditions by acquiring as many husbands as possible.

Researchers from The University of California, Davis collected and analyzed data on births, deaths, marriages, and divorces in a Western Tanzanian village over the course of 20 years. To their surprise, they discovered that women in the village who moved from husband to husband had more surviving children than those who stuck with just one man. Conversely, men who had multiple wives over the course of their lives actually saw less surviving children.

“We can’t pin down the exact reasons for this finding, but our work (together with suggestions of others) suggests that marrying multiply may be a wise strategy for women where the necessities of life are hard, and where men’s economic productivity and health can vary radically over their lifetime due to the challenging environmental conditions,” explains lead researcher Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, a professor of anthropology at UC Davis, in a press release.

More than 2,000 individuals from the small village, located at the north end of the Rukwa Valley, were analyzed for the study. The area is very poor, and while the villagers have built up a viable economy through the export of gathered honey and brewed beer, yearly crop production is unpredictable due to inconsistent rainfall and poor soil quality.

Professor Borgerhoff Mulder has been working on this study for the better part of two decades. She stresses that it is important to understand that in these villages successfully raising healthy children into adulthood is in no way a guarantee, and women must give themselves every opportunity to protect their children. Multiple husbands represent additional caretakers to help raise children, provide resources, and help out around the house.

“As evolutionary biologists we measure benefit in terms of numbers of surviving children produced — still a key currency in rural Africa,” Borgerhoff Mulder comments.

Marriage in the village’s culture is a bit different than typical Western notions. According to both researchers and missionaries who have visited the area, marriage is simply defined as two sexual partners living together, and a “divorce” can be initiated rather quickly and without hassle.

The study is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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