Why modern women don’t want to be co-wives but are okay being side chics


Second wife? Not me! Why modern women don’t want to be co-wives but are okay being sidechics

What you need to know:

  • Some say it all comes to their independence as being legal means diminished freedom, while others say being married means added responsibility and less fun

In the history of extra-marital affairs (which is probably as old as the world itself), being ‘the other woman’ (or side chick, or side dish or honeybee) has always been very controversial. 

Often the word ‘mistress’ comes from the mouths of a lot of people accompanied with a heap-load of jibes and expletives: Jezebel, hussy, tramp, vamper, harlot, homewrecker…

In history and literature, these are the Bathshebas and Delilahs of the Bible, and the Marilyn Monroes (to be fair though, JFK was a hot, irresistible mess) among many others, like the ‘clandes’ of Kenya. Although applied as a noun in Kenya, ‘clandestine’ is actually an adjective referring to a secret mission or surreptitious act.

While history has portrayed these women as wanton, raunchy, and adventurous to the extent of sparking interest in the married men they get involved with, they have also been portrayed as gullible and recklessly hopeless for falling in love with (and waiting for) men that would never abandon their wives and families to marry them.

And yet, the position of ‘the other woman’ is slowly evolving.

Despite having the opportunity, these so-called ‘homewreckers’ are increasingly refusing to have their ‘illicit’ affairs legitimised into recognized unions, preferring instead to keep their positions as the ‘extra thirds’.

According to a recent survey released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the number of married Kenyan women who are co-wives has declined significantly from 23 per cent (in 1989) to nine per cent (in 2022), with the number being lower in women in their 20s compared to those in their late 40s.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 also showed that in rural areas, women are twice likely to have cowives compared to their counterparts in urban areas.

According to Dr Benson Agaya, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi in the Department of Sociology, “the reasons for the drop in the number of polygynous marriages can be categorised into cultural and socio-economic. Culturally, only Islam and traditional African religions allow polygamy. Possibly, people are increasingly ascending into or adopting the other religious models that insist on monogamy like Christianity.”

An earlier survey in 2018 by research firm Consumer Insight found that a quarter of those in romantic relationships in Kenya admitted to regularly cheating on their partners.

This means that fewer and fewer Kenyan women (especially in the cities) are getting into polygamous unions.

“Urbanisation also affects the drop in two aspects,” Dr. Agaya explains.

“The first is Western education. A lot of people are going to school now, and this means that women are increasingly being empowered such that they insist on their own spaces and on exclusivity. They are no longer comfortable sharing their spaces in unions with other women. Secondly, in most urban setups presently, children are raised in monogamous family models. Having been socialised like that, later in adulthood, women raised in such families obviously prefer to have it the same way.”

But as those I interviewed signalled there are more reasons as to why modern women are saying no to polygamy and opting to be the ‘hidden’ woman instead. Some say it all comes to their independence as being legal means diminished freedom, while others say being married means added responsibility and less fun.

We spoke to four women who are already in relationships with married men but don’t want to get married as co-wives.

Fear of domesticity and not being ready to take up the wifely duties.

Anita Muchemi, 32, a business lady, who was until recently, the mistress to a man who works for a major corporation in the country

“I decided quite early that I did not want to be married as a co-wife despite dating a married man. “What for?” I would often ask myself. There was simply no need.

I won’t mention the name of his company because If I say the name you will know. But I knew the guy for like half a year before I gave in to his advances. He’s a big-ish person in the telecommunication sector. That’s all I can say. So, in 2017, he was transferred to start a new branch of their company in Malawi. He asked me to move in with him to Malawi. Mind you he was married; his wife and children were back here [Nairobi]. I didn’t even think twice. I quit my job and moved in with him to Malawi. I stayed in Malawi for two years till just before Covid. While there, he would travel to Nairobi sometimes for like a week to see his family. I had everything. I wasn’t living with him in his house in Malawi because it would have been very conspicuous. There were two other people who had moved from the Nairobi office with him. Plus, he was afraid the wife might want to visit at some point. She didn’t, but he was just a careful person like that.

So, in addition to paying for my rent, he spent a lot of time at my place and he paid for everything I needed- upkeep, salon, vacation. Everything. I was just a kept woman.

Covid happened, and we both had to come back. The wife found out then (partly my fault but I also think somebody might have hinted at the affair to her). We had a long talk with the guy. He wasn’t leaving his wife, of course, but he also wanted to keep me.

He asked if I could be his second wife. I was flattered a bit that he wasn’t willing to lose me, but when I got my head right again, I refused. I just didn’t want to. I would lose the life I had, for sure. Not that I was taking advantage of him, but you know how these things are. Once you become a wife, they suddenly just want to lock you in the house. Even those vacations you used to go to, good luck having them. So, I refused. I realised I wasn’t ready for the responsibilities.”

Being a wife means giving up your single life

Maurine Nyambura, 32, is a cosmetician who owns a beauty parlour where she also works

“My current boyfriend is married. Actually, his wife is my client. We met when he dropped her off at my shop and we just liked each other immediately.

It’s a long story, but he asked me to marry him and I refused. I had my reasons. You see, I wasn’t prepared for the life changes of married life. There’s a difference between being a wife and being a side chic. I know because I have been with this man for two years. Sometime last year, I got pregnant, and he suddenly changed. He started becoming a bit controlling. He would say things like, ‘You can’t do this or that. You are about to become a mother. You have to set a good example for our children.’ At that time, the pregnancy was not even a month old yet. We didn’t even know the gender yet.

Unfortunately, we lost the baby when I was two months pregnant.

I know he loves me. I know he would have kept both me and the baby. He would have told his wife about the baby for sure because even now, he sometimes hints at trying for another one. When I ignored his preposition of being a second wife, he asked if I’m insecure about the relationship. He asked if I would want him to introduce me to his family, as he was ready to, but I told him it was too soon. The truth is, I’m just not ready to become a wife. Maybe in the future, I will, but for now, I just want to be free to have my own life without having to think about children or curfews for getting home or somebody else’s problems.”

There’s no thrill in being a second wife

Sylvia Njambi, 25, whose friends call her ‘Sly’

“I am dating somebody married, but I also have a boyfriend. My boyfriend is around my age but the guy is much older. I like my boyfriend, but honestly, being with the other guy is more exciting. We go to places like good restaurants and he shows me off to his friends. We don’t see each other much because he has a family, but when we meet, it’s just something else. The sex is always great and he just can’t keep his hands off me.

The secrecy around our relationship and the excitement of avoiding getting caught is a great turn-on for me.

Married men know how to love. They know how to spoil you. They don’t have demands. When I’m out with him, I feel great. I feel special, I know he has a wife. I don’t even know how to explain it to you. Kwanza the fact that he has a wife and still wants me is a turn-on.

But honestly, if he asked me to be his second wife, I don’t think I would accept. I don’t want to be a second wife. Yes, there are all these things he does for me, but I’m sure if I became his wife, he would just get somebody else to do those things with, while he keeps me home.

There’s no excitement in being a wife. A second wife and at my age! That’s like throwing your life away.”

Being a co-wife is considered a low status in the society

Esther Nzula*, 28, is a practising lawyer

“I met my boyfriend at an advocates’ forum somewhere in Hurlingham. We hit it off immediately. I found his confidence attractive, and he is also intelligent and he smells nice. I like men who smell nice.

It took us three dates to reveal to me that he was already married. I was a little disappointed, I have to admit. Okay, maybe not just a little. But I should have known, I guess my married men's radar had turned off around him.

We had a lot of discussions because I am big on communication. I don’t like beating around the bush, I like to say what’s on my mind and I also try to actively listen to other people without imposing what I think on them.

One thing we agreed on was that marriage is off the table for now, for obvious reasons: he is married. Our options are limited anyway. He would have to be legally divorced first.

We have been together for thirteen months now but I think what has helped keep us together is because we have set boundaries in our relationship. Our relationship is open-ish. Once in a while, I see other people, but they never last long and so we never really talk about it.

I really like him, but I would not want to be a second wife. As a lawyer, I know that getting legally married can come with its own benefits, like inheritance and in some jurisdictions, tax breaks, but how would I even tell my family that I am a second wife? Till now, our society still considers a woman married as a second wife to be of low status because ‘she couldn’t even get her own husband’ and went after somebody else’s family. Unfortunately, our parent’s generation still has that judgmental mindset, whilst ours is contemptuous of the very idea of being a second wife.”