Legislation on polygamy issue urgent
By Paul Harricknen
Catholic Professionals PNG
21 DEC 2012. Should polygamy be allowed to continue in our country to its own natural demise or should there be legislative intervention as recently proposed by the Governor of Eastern Highlands, Hon. Julie Soso? Polygamy is not only unchristian and against moral law, it is a social menace.
In 1982, the late Hon. Peter Peipul, called for the outlawing of polygamy. In his opinion, polygamy was “unsavoury” and “unconstitutional”. In 1990, the former Law Reform Commission’s Task Force on Family Law Reform also considered the banning of polygamy.
While customary marriages may be lawful, unfortunately there are now many complaints, fights and killings between co-wives. In areas where polygamy is still practiced, an increasing number of women have been charged with the murder of another of their husband’s wives.
Women’s human rights will always be an issue if polygamy remains in place. Every human being (both male and female) have equal rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Art. 1 summarizes all of the subsequent articles and succeeding international treaties and conventions when it says, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Particularly under Article 16 of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, all member States are required to take appropriate steps or measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations, in particular on the basis of equality of men and women such as the same right to enter into marriage, the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with free and full consent, and the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution.
Papua New Guinea as a member State to this legally binding international treaty has a duty to ensure that its domestic laws, including Statutes and customary practices are in line with the internationally recognized principles and practices.
Polygamy is no longer suitable for PNG. Many polygamous relationships are not valid customary marriages as they do not fulfill the traditional requirements of bride price and acceptance by the tribal families of the parties to these relationships. Usually polygamy is forced upon first wives, who succumb due to their economic and social disadvantage or simply opt to maintain their marriage fidelity and integrity. The practice of polygamy today is more for the convenience of sex, labour or politics for men. Women are always at the receiving end. The argument by supporters of polygamy that it is culturally valid and has worked well in PNG fails to recognize the chaos and abuse it causes today more than ever. Whilst polygamous customary marriage is recognized by the Marriage Act and the Underlying Law Act of 2000, it is also arguably unconstitutional and unlawful. It is unconstitutional because many polygamous marriages are in favour of men who marry more than one woman, thus discriminatory under section 55 of the Constitution.
Many of the purported or seemingly polygamous marriages are in reality bigamous. This is true especially with the working, educated and elite class of the society. Many of those partners have an outstanding religious or civil marriage. When they claim entering into a subsequent customary marriage, this may easily be classified as bigamous under the Marriage Act and the Criminal Code. First wives in this case could have their husbands and other wives prosecuted for bigamy.
The inconvenience of polygamy in this present age and times should be properly considered. Should the Parliament refuse to act on Hon. Julie Soso’s request, it is probably for the National and Supreme Courts to step in to outline a set of principles defining genuine and valid customary marriage. (www.cbcpngsi.org – email@example.com)