Polygamy leaves women worse off, court told

Globe and Mail, Canada/December 7, 2010

The same supply-and-demand forces that drive the economy ensure women are worse off in societies where polygamy is practised, a professor testified Tuesday at a landmark court case examining Canada's ban on multiple marriages.

Shoshana Grossbard, an expert in the economics of marriage from San Diego State University, said allowing men to have multiple wives inevitably leads to a reduced supply of women, increasing demand.

But rather than making women more valuable in such communities, she said, that scarcity encourages men in polygamous societies to exert control over them to ensure they have access to the limited supply.

"In the cultures and societies worldwide that have embraced it, polygamy is associated with undesirable economic, societal, physical, psychological and emotional factors related especially to women's well-being," said Prof. Grossbard, whose research has primarily focused on polygamous cultures in Africa.

Prof. Grossbard was the latest academic to testify in B.C. Supreme Court in a reference case to determine whether Canada's polygamy law is consistent with the religious guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court will also hear from current and former residents of polygamous communities.

Prof. Grossbard said there are fewer women available to men in societies that permit polygamy - even for monogamous men, because they are drawing from the same pool of women.

Since that scarcity could increase what she describes as the women's "bargaining power," men in such societies have an incentive to ensure they retain control over who the women marry.

To that end, Prof. Grossbard said, polygamy is associated with teenage brides, arranged and forced marriages, payments to brides' fathers, little emphasis on "romantic" love and poor access to education or the work force - all designed to restrict the ability of women to choose who they marry.

"The men in polygamous societies want these institutions to help them control women," Prof. Grossbard said.

Other unintended consequences of polygamy include jealousy among plural wives and psychological or health problems, she told the court.

While Prof. Grossbard acknowledged it's difficult to attribute any single issue to polygamy, the fact that so many of these problems consistently appear in polygamous societies - and at much higher rates than in monogamous ones - suggests they are caused by polygamy.

"I conclude that polygamy actually causes some of these institutions to be created," she said.

"The fact that so many of them are present in cultures that also have polygamy, my conclusion is that men in polygamous societies will manipulate the social institutions in ways that will facilitate their control of women."

The court case was prompted by the failed prosecution last year of two leaders in the community of Bountiful, in southeastern B.C., which is home to members of the U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Prof. Grossbard said she hadn't researched Bountiful or other fundamentalist Mormon communities before she was asked to testify. However, she said it appears some of the problems associated with polygamy - including limiting women's ability to choose who they marry and social isolation - are also present in the B.C. community.

Earlier, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman ruled that video affidavits filed with the court can be broadcast on TV and the Internet.

B.C. government lawyers videotaped interviews with 14 women and children who have lived in polygamous communities in Canada and the United States.

The Crown had asked the court to prevent news outlets from broadcasting the videos after one of the witnesses complained that part of her affidavit appeared on a news website.

But Judge Bauman noted that witness Ruth Lane, who was once married to Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore, has already told her story in other media interviews, including on the internationally broadcast program Dr. Phil.

"The media respondents are accurate when they submit that the complaining [witness's] concerns are apparently based on a whim - a wholly inadequate basis for the impeding the interests of the press and the public here," he said.

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