The East African - - COVER STORY -

Lawyers, women’s as­so­ci­a­tions, lo­cal of­fi­cials and aca­demics who study the re­gion say the in­crease in di­vorces is hap­pen­ing across West Africa — in ur­ban and ru­ral, as well as Mus­lim and Christian, ar­eas.

The to­tal di­vorce rate is rel­a­tively sta­ble or even de­clin­ing slightly in some parts of West Africa, they note, but un­der­neath that are huge changes in di­vorce pat­terns and so­ci­ety at large.

Women are more ed­u­cated now and in some ar­eas marry later in life, fac­tors that aca­demics say lead to more sta­ble mar­riages. At the same time, more women are mov­ing into cities and join­ing the work­force, em­pow­er­ing more of them to dis­card bad mar­riages.

In the swel­ter­ing wait­ing room of the main court­house in Dakar, the Sene­galese cap­i­tal, the benches out­side a di­vorce judge’s chambers were packed with women like Ra­mata Sampy, a 27-year-old ac­count­ing and man­age­ment student.

Her hus­band, a rail­road worker, was in­sist­ing that she give up her school­ing and move to his ex­tended fam­ily’s home far out­side the city. That wasn’t how she had en­vi­sioned mar­ried life.

“I thought we’d be to­gether, work to­gether and help each other,” she said.

Dakar’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Fe­male Lawyers said it now helped three times as many fe­male clients seek­ing di­vorce as it did even just four years ago.

“Many women in Dakar are in­de­pen­dent and have jobs and have money,” said Daouda Ka, a lawyer who han­dles di­vorce cases. “In the past, they were just tol­er­at­ing bad mar­riages. Now, if it doesn’t work out, they leave.”

In Ghana, 73 per cent of di­vorce cases han­dled by the Le­gal Aid Scheme of Greater Ac­cra were filed by women in 2016-2017, a big shift from the past. Di­vorce, once con­sid­ered taboo for con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians, is be­ing pre­sented in some church ser­mons as a bet­ter op­tion than end­ing up with domestic vi­o­lence or adul­tery.

Ac­cess to the me­dia has sky­rock­eted. In ru­ral ar­eas, women dis­cuss mar­riage trou­bles on call-in ra­dio shows. In ma­jor cities, women vent their re­la­tion­ship frus­tra­tions on so­cial me­dia.

Amadou spent her child­hood in Maradi, a busy city of small shops and open-air mar­kets ringed by clus­ters of farm­ing vil­lages.

It was at a wed­ding that a friend played match­maker, point­ing out a man twice her age, Noura Issa, among the many guests. Amadou hadn’t nec­es­sar­ily been look­ing for a hus­band. She was busy tak­ing sew­ing classes that she had per­suaded her fam­ily to pay for.

“I wanted to be able to sup­port my­self,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to rely on a man for money.”

Still, when her friend called the next day to ask whether Issa could visit her, Amadou agreed.

He as­sured her he would be an ideal hus­band — a pro­fes­sional tai­lor who could pro­vide a nice life for her. He was kind, and even nice to her mother.

The cou­ple mar­ried and moved into his home out­side the city cen­tre. Soon after they were set­tled, Issa told her the sew­ing classes were a waste of money. He didn’t want her leav­ing the house.

But his tai­lor­ing busi­ness was strug­gling. A few years ago, Issa had been earn­ing the equiv­a­lent of nearly $14 a day, sew­ing and hem­ming clothes. Sud­denly, he couldn’t earn half that much.

In Niger, polygamy is com­mon. Men in the mostly Mus­lim na­tion can have up to four wives. The coun­try also has the high­est birthrate in the world, with women in Niger giv­ing birth to seven chil­dren on av­er­age.

Is­maël says most of the women who come be­fore his court seek­ing di­vorce cite fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

Is­maël is a the ju­di­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the head Is­lamic re­li­gious leader in the area. He is so re­spected that he hears cases from across a re­gion of three mil­lion peo­ple, and some­times from over the bor­der in Nige­ria. He has ruled over this court for 12 years, on call 24 hours a day.

But lately, di­vorces make up a grow­ing part of his docket. And while he thinks all wives de­serve to be treated well, the judge said he was trou­bled by the ris­ing di­vorce rate.

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