American researchers have found that polygamy, where one husband has more than one wife, in some circumstances leads to greater health and wealth for women and their children.
For the study, a research team from the University of California compared both polygamous and monogamous households in 56 villages in northern Tanzania. Polygamy is widespread among certain ethnic groups in this region, including the Maasai.
When comparing households within individual villages, the team discovered that polygamous households often had better access to food and healthier children. Polygynous households also owned more cattle and farmed more land than monogamous households.
These findings support evolutionary anthropological accounts of marriage indicating that polygamy can be in a woman's strategic interest when they depend on men for resources.
"If you have a choice of a guy who has 180 cows, lots of land and other wives, it might be better for you to marry him rather than a guy who has no wife, three cows and one acre," said Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, one of the researchers from the University of California.
The research highlight the importance of local context in studying the health implications of cultural practices, and suggest that in some settings, prohibiting polygamy could be disadvantageous to women by restricting their marriage options.
"Women should be assured the autonomy to make the decisions they want," Mulder pointed out.
Tanzania faces a high burden of food insecurity and malnutrition. Previous research showed that nearly 60 percent of Tanzanian Maasai children experience stunting.
"Our study suggests that highly polygamous, predominantly Maasai villages do poorly not because of polygamy but because of vulnerability to drought, low service provision and broader socio-political disadvantages," said the study's lead author David Lawson, who is from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Most countries around the globe ban or restrict marriages to more than one spouse at a time. Furthermore, polygamy is decried by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and Women's Rights Organisations as discriminatory to women.
The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.