Immigrants' second wives find few rights

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.

This leniency has created a unique set of problems because these women are not legal residents and have no rights. They are not allowed to work and they are not entitled to any form of social welfare.

As a result, they become totally dependent on their husbands. Many times they have no access to birth control and are not even allowed to leave the house.

A clash of two cultures

For some, it creates a sad and debilitating lifestyle - something they never anticipated when they agreed to a polygamous marriage in the country of their birth. "Back in Senegal we never had a problem with polygamy," says Diop. "[In France] everything is different.''

The clash between the two cultures creates a strange kind of legal limbo that it is unfair to force upon these second wives, says Marie-Françoise Savigny.

She's the administrator in Les Mureaux responsible for solidarity and social affairs. Concentrated in two areas in the city there are about 80 polygamous families, with as many as 1,000 children.

They find themselves living in a culture unequipped to accommodate a polygamous lifestyle.

French houses are not built for such large families, says Ms. Savigny. The families end up living in crowded and impoverished conditions.

Also, tensions arise with French neighbors who tend to be flabbergasted when confronted with families consisting of a husband, two or more wives, and as many as 20 children.

For some second wives, the logical solution would seem to be to apply for public housing for themselves and their children. But French law, which doesn't recognize their marital status, makes no accommodation for them.

"For the last few years 21 women of these families have been asking for a house for themselves," Savigny explains. "But there was nothing we could do for them. The law was very strict.''

One way to help

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.

Polygamy has been causing a series of troubles in and around large French cities, where many people from the former French colonies reside. Because of the sheer size of these families, the children are often neglected. They skip school and take to the streets.

"Polygamy has been forbidden for more than 10 years," complains Savigny. "But second wives are still being allowed to enter the country. Politicians have kept their eyes shut for the problems they created.'' She says politicians are afraid to act, because they fear accusations of racism.

The approach in Les Mureaux is severe but fair, says Savigny. "We're only helping the women who arrived prior to 1993,'' she points out. "They're here legally. They have French children who were born here. We can't let them down.''

Life has been difficult since coming to France in 1991, Diop says. In her home, she says, competition and jealousy reign. "We argue a lot, the first wife and me," she acknowledges.

For years Diop has been trying to find a place of her own - for her and her children. "Living with 20 people in five rooms, that's not a normal thing, is it?'' she asks.

Today, however, thanks to the city council of Les Mureaux, Diop is looking forward to the prospect of her own apartment.

"I'll be happy with any extra space I can get for my children," she says. But she still wants to be second wife, she adds. "I just hope my new house won't be too far from my husband. I want to stay close to him.''

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