Does marriage matter? The usual way of exploring the question is to classify different families according to the relationship status of the parents and compare outcomes for the children.
Another way is to look at parts of the world where marriage itself takes a radically different form (different, that is, from western marriage traditions). The most obvious non-western form of marriage is polygamy, which as the Economist reports, is much more widespread than we might assume:
“Because polygamy is illegal in most rich countries, many Westerners underestimate how common it is. More than a third of women in West Africa are married to a man who has more than one wife. Plural marriages are plentiful in the Arab world, and fairly common in South-East Asia and a few parts of the Caribbean.”
What effect does polygamous have on the societies that practice it? The article paints a pretty grim picture:
“A study of 240,000 children in 29 African countries found that, after controlling for other factors, those in polygamous families were more likely to die young. A study among the Dogon of Mali found that a child in a polygynous family was seven to 11 times more likely to die early than a child in a monogamous one.”
Then there is the destabilising effect on society as a whole, which comes down to basic mathematics:
“…every time a rich man takes an extra wife, another poor man must remain single. If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state.
“This is one of the reasons why the Arab Spring erupted, why the jihadists of Boko Haram and Islamic State were able to conquer swathes of Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, and why the polygamous parts of Indonesia and Haiti are so turbulent… The taking of multiple wives is a feature of life in all of the 20 most unstable countries on the Fragile States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace, an NGO…”
Of what relevance is any of this to countries where polygamy is not legal? While various campaigns to legalise same sex marriage have met with notable success, the idea that marriage is between two people has yet to come under serious pressure. Some campaigners have called for the legal recognition of polyamorous relationships, which they see as ‘liberated’ and radically egalitarian. However, it’s difficult to see how any move in that direction wouldn’t also cover non-western, highly patriarchal forms of polygamy.
And yet there are ways in which we could be creating some of the problems of polygamy without legalising it. Open border policies that welcome migrants on the condition that they make hazardous journeys over land and sea skews immigration to those most willing and able to undertake such an ordeal – i.e. young men. For instance, Sweden has seen dramatic shifts in its gender ratio as a result. The effect has been exaggerated in certain age groups by some migrants falsely claiming to be younger than they actually are; but whatever the true age profile, the recent wave of asylum seeking migrants to Europe has been overwhelmingly male.
Another way that countries can skew the gender ratio is sex-selective abortion. Examples include China (where there were 33 million more men than women in 2014) and India (37 million more men than women in 2011). The resulting imbalances are especially extreme among young adults – as a result of older (and richer) men marrying younger women, leaving even fewer potential partners for younger, poorer men. This cannot end well – either on a personal or a political level.
Monogamy is the foundation of a stable society, as is a balanced gender ratio. We undermine either at our peril.