LES MUREAUX, FRANCE—Hoiloyo Diop is—as she calls herself time and again—“the second wife.” She’s also the mother of eight. Hers is not an easy situation, she says. “Every morning we line up in front of the bathroom door, waiting until the first wife has finished bathing herself and her children,” she says, speaking with arms folded and eyes cast down. And it’s a long wait—the first wife is the mother of nine.
In the evening, they stand in line again.
Diop, who is originally from Senegal, shares a five-room apartment in Les Mureaux, a city west of Paris, with her husband, his first wife, and their combined 17 children.
“Four of my children sleep in one room, the others share another room. That’s no good. They wake up tired and have problems concentrating at school,” she says. In France, Diop has discovered, a second wife has few rights—inside or outside the home.
Diop is one of many thousands of women in France today caught in a gap between African tradition and Western social and legal codes.
The French government estimates that there are somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 polygamous families within its borders, originating from countries in Africa and the Middle East. These husbands married two or more women legally in their home country, and have, on average, 10 children.
France declared polygamy illegal in 1993. After that, officially, second wives were not allowed to enter the country for the purpose of reuniting with their husbands. But French authorities—whether from sympathy or other motives—have largely looked the other way and allowed many of the “second women” to enter the country and take up residency.
So Savigny and the city council have thought of a way to help at least some of the women. A special team of social workers will visit all families and make a list of their demands.
Any of the women who entered the country before 1993—when polygamy was outlawed—who want a separate house will be provided with one by the city council, which will also support them financially.
Les Mureaux’s support for second wives is a first in France, but some say the problem needs wider attention.