Puna Mwamadi, 36, believes she died on April 6, 1997.
The mother of Four, from the area of Traditional (T/A) Authority Karonga in the Lakeshore district of Salima, Southern Malawi, had been eight-months pregnant when her husband, Abner, died in March of the same year- leaving behind her and two other co-wives as theirs was a polygamous family.
"I was at home on that night (of April 6, 1997) when labour pains begun. There was only myself at home, alongside Mirriam and Patuma, my deceased husband's other wives, and these people did alot to help me:I remember Patuma run into the bush without being afraid of the appalling darkness that night to fetch some labour-inducing herbs for me while Mirriam rushed to inform the village headman and traditional birth attendants.
"Their efforts helped me alot because, honestly, I was in such great pain I simply thought it would be better to die than endure. I lost alot of blood and was just screeming. Infact, I still don't understand how I survived that day; I was dead I know, without the efforts of these two, and all those who came to render their help," says Mwamadi, at his home on the out-skirts of Salima Boma.
Unfortunately for Puma, the system she claims to have saved her life may be dismantled, if efforts to ban polygamy in a proposed legislation are sustained.
According to Fiona Mwale, Assistant Chief Law Reform Officer at the Malawi Law Commission, a survey conducted to gauge people's views on polygamy indicated that most wives were against the system, as it mainly works to the disadvantage of women -culturally inhibited from marrying more than one man.
Mwale says most of the people asked about the issue felt it mainly worked to the advantage of men wishing to have multiple partners, often at the expence of wives who depend on their husbands for their daily bread, taking into consideration the high illiteracy rate among most Malawian women that makes it difficult for them to be self-sufficient in the absence of supportive husbands.
Mwale parried away suggestions the intended legislation, which required the approval of Parliament if it were to become into effect, was targeting Muslims- whose religion allows polygamy provided the husband will be able to support all the wives without discrimination or favouratism.
"Even Chief Makanjira, himself a Muslim, supported the idea to ban polygamy saying even though he could, by religion, be allowed to marry more than one wive, he only has one wife because he things it is the right thing to do. Even most of the people asked said they felt polygamy mostly worked aganst the rights of women," said Mwale.
Her sentiments are supported by Gender Support Programme Executive Director, Cecillia Mussa, who wonders why only men are allowed to marry more than one wife when the same right is denied to women.
She says the system is only perpetuated by men who want to abuse women and use them as sexual instruments when marriage was supposed to be a sanctified act between two individuals who commit themselves to live with each other "till death doth us part".Mussa adds that what is at stake is not polygamy per se but the fairness in it that renders women vulnerable to the machinations of their husbands and other men.
"Which husband would allow his wife to have more than one husband and still be happy in marriage? But you will find that most men marry more than one wife and still expects the woman to be happy; there is psychological torture to it which, as often happens in the name of our culture, women are forced to bear in silence," queries Mussa.
Sheikh Mohammed Osman, Blantyre Islamic Information Bureau Co-ordinator, however, backs the idea behind allowing men only to have more than one wife, as opposed to women.
"The issue is straight forward:when a husband marries more than one wife, say three wives, and impreginates all of them at once, people will definitely know who has done it -the women's husband. But when, say, a woman marries more than one husband and goes to bed with them the same day, and they make her pregnant; who will you say is the real 'owner' of the preginancy? And when the child is born, which one will you say is its father's name? Definitely, it can't be all of them," argues Osman.
Osman further says Islam as a religion -while it does not prohibit polygamy for those who can be able to treat and support all the wives equally and with the same intensity of love and care- does not make polygamy compulsory.
"It is up to individuals to choose and, for those who can do it, let them be allowed to practice it without any hindrance. It is not true either that the system abuses women because,in fact, it was decided upon as a means of strengthening love, even extending it, to those women whose husbands were killed in battle or holy war so that they could not be lonely but still be looked after by men. Those people who use it to abuse women may be doing it for cultural reasons as you know that there are some cultures that promote polygamy and it must be these traditions perpetuating abuse against women and not Muslims," adds Osman, who says the proposed legislation should not be allowed to pass as it will affect good-meaning people.
Moses Mkandawire of Mzimba Heritage Association, an organisation formed to preserve and safeguard culture in the Northern region, feels a lot of ground work still needs to be done to determine the fate of the practice. He says any hussled efforts could only succeed in portlaying the move as being targeted at a particular group of people- both culturally and religiously.
"Actually, I would think twice before supporting such a legislation," he explains.
So, as the type-setters of the proposed legislation smear ink on blank pieces of paper for what could as well become the death bed, at least on paper, of polygamy; the drafters know deep down that the practice has a deep surface. Even, more importantly, that a gallant fight awaits them ahead.