Big love and big war: exploring the link between polygamy and violence

A curious thesis takes The Economist’s foreign editor to war zones and refugee camps

Why write about polygamy? It is illegal and rare in West, so people tend to regard it as a curiosity, a quaint tradition or even something to laugh about — think of television series like “Big Love”.

In America, polygamy is too rare to have broad social consequences, but in countries where it is common, it begets violence. Of the 20 most unstable countries in the world, all 20 are very or somewhat polygamous. A study by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics found a strong link between polygamy and civil war.


This is the kind of topic I most like writing about. It is complex, vivid and requires reporting from multiple countries. AsThe Economist’s foreign editor, I have to travel a lot anyway, and I always have a multi-country project on the go.


在一次公民war in South Sudan that I found the best illustrations of the link between polygamy and war. Some 40% of South Sudanese women are in plural marriages, and the country is in total chaos. Polygamy is not the only cause of the civil war, but it is clearly part of the story.

As in most war zones, the mechanics of reporting were not simple. I had a heck of a time getting the necessary visas and permits, and thuggish officials still claimed that I needed another. That caused me to miss an internal flight, and I had to waste precious days in Juba, the capital, until I could board another. Juba is not the easiest place to hang out. Drunken soldiers set up road blocks at night to rob motorists, so it is hard to go out after dark. The beer’s good, though.


Conversation by conversation, I pieced together how war and polygamy interact in South Sudan. Because the big men have dozens of wives, there are legions of young, poor men who are doomed to eternal bachelorhood. Those who wish to marry must give the bride’s family anything from 30 to 300 cows — a huge sum.

年轻人承认我,这将是一个难以使很多奶牛的合法手段。但他们总是可以拿起一把枪,然后偷走一群牧群。因为牛袭击在南苏丹是如此普遍,所以牧民携带AK47S捍卫他们的野兽。成千上万的人在牛袭击中被杀死,五月纪灭可以升级到部落战争中。年轻人经常热衷于加入武装民兵,因为他们认为这是他们唯一的找到财富 - 因此是一个妻子。

The consequences were visible in every refugee camp I visited. I spoke to dozens of people who had been driven from their homes by militiamen who killed their brothers, kidnapped their sisters and seized their land and livestock. Their stories were heart-breaking — some began an interview by bursting into tears.

A project like this is always the work of many hands. Before I set off, I read an illuminating book called “Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy”, by David Barash, an evolutionary biologist. In each country I visited, I used fixers and interpreters. I also asked two fine colleagues, Maggie Shiltagh and Memphis Barker, to do some extra reporting from Egypt and Pakistan.

I ended the article with an interview with an aid worker who described what it was like growing up in a polygamous rebel officer’s family. I was moved by her description of how badly she was neglected, as is more or less inevitable when you are one of more than 40 siblings. I hope the article makes people think. There’s an argument in some parts of the world that recognising polygamy is the next big civil-rights struggle, now that gay marriage is legal in so many places. I think that’s a recipe for trouble.

Robert GuestisThe Economist’sforeign editor. His story “The link between polygamy and warappeared in the Christmas issue ofThe Economiston December 19th 2017.

The Economist



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