The East African - - COVER STORY -

“I’m al­ways re­luc­tant to grant di­vorces,” he said. “I’m try­ing to slow things down.”

The court pro­ceed­ings draw spec­ta­tors who ring the court four or five lay­ers deep.

Amadou looked tiny sit­ting be­fore the judge and the spec­ta­tors tow­er­ing over her — all men. She summed up her plea to the judge with one sim­ple fact: After a year and a half of mar­riage, her hus­band no longer loved her. She wanted him to grant her a di­vorce.

Love wasn’t even a sug­ges­tion when her mother was mar­ried. Still, she sat there sup­port­ively as Amadou rat­tled off com­plaints: Her hus­band didn’t bring home food; he didn’t care about her when she was preg­nant; he didn’t even visit her at the health cen­tre when she was in labour.

De­spite the chang­ing mores, child mar­riage rates are among the high­est in the world, and teenagers in Niger have more chil­dren than any­where in the world, ac­cord­ing to the UN.

“A girl must be mar­ried to avoid be­ing in trou­ble,” said Laouali Ouban­dawaki Iro, the vil­lage chief of Gi­ratawa, a town on the out­skirts of Maradi, ex­plain­ing the area’s tra­di­tions. He is in his early 60s. Two of his wives are teenagers.

Par­ents also have a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive. In Niger, daugh­ters in some ar­eas are traded by poor fam­i­lies des­per­ate for a dowry pay­ment.

But the push to limit child mar­riage has helped shift at­ti­tudes. Across Niger, imams at­tend work­shops on women’s rights. School cur­ricu­lums in­clude lessons on the ben­e­fits of wait­ing to marry. In ru­ral ar­eas, the govern­ment and Unicef have as­signed rep­re­sen­ta­tives to me­di­ate be­tween fam­i­lies and girls who rebel against mar­riage.

“In the past, girls didn’t dare refuse to marry,” said Sani Bakoye, one of the child pro­tec­tion work­ers, in a tiny vil­lage of Ink­oure­gaou. “Now, they are dar­ing.”

Zeinoura Mahissou, 16, from a vil­lage two hours from Maradi, was beaten by her fa­ther after she re­fused to marry an older man.

A mem­ber of the govern­ment’s child pro­tec­tion pro­gramme paid a visit to the home and en­cour­aged her par­ents to drop the idea. Even­tu­ally they

In Maradi, young girls cy­cle into a weath­ered build­ing to talk about abu­sive hus­bands, jeal­ous co-wives, over­bear­ing moth­ers-in-law — and un­ful­filled sex lives. The build­ing houses an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Dy­namic Women.

Skimpy biki­nis made only of plas­tic beads hang on the walls. Lo­tions and oils line the shelves. One young woman ar­rived for coun­selling, say­ing she had fol­lowed the in­struc­tions to rub oil on her­self and sit naked in front of her hus­band. Still, he wasn’t in­ter­ested.

“Many women come here to com­plain,” said Rakia Modi, a re­li­gious leader who cre­ated the cen­tre three years ago and has coun­selled women for nearly two decades. “Ten years ago, women didn’t know their rights. They thought they were just stuck in a mar­riage, be it good or bad.”

At the cen­tre, Am­satou Idi, 24, said she and her friends had started trad­ing re­li­gious VHS tapes with ser­mons on how to deal with bad mar­riages. The tapes said that “women have the right to be treated well by their hus­bands,” she said.

In Amadou’s case, she spent most of the day in the house, alone, find­ing com­pany in her ra­dio. She was a reg­u­lar lis­tener to a soap opera with women’s rights themes pro­duced by the govern­ment and Unicef. She found her­self re­lat­ing to a char­ac­ter whose hus­band had mis­treated her and who dis­cussed her re­la­tion­ship with oth­ers on the show.

“They’d been say­ing that hus­bands just don’t care about their wives — and that was my prob­lem,” she said.

Amadou fig­ured that her case was clear-cut when she went to the side­walk court. But the judge told the cou­ple to go home and try to work it out one more time. If they still wanted a di­vorce, he told them, come back in two days.

After the hear­ing, Issa dropped his head, con­ced­ing that fi­nances were tight and that he didn’t give Amadou all the lit­tle gifts she would have liked.

“But that wasn’t in the mar­riage con­tract, to give her presents,” he said.

“I’m tired of com­ing here,” he huffed. “I’ve de­cided.”

Two days later, the cou­ple ar­rived at court from op­po­site sides of the street, part­ing the crowd of ob­servers to sit on the side­walk be­fore the judge.

“You told us to come back if we couldn’t work it out, so we’re back,” Issa said. “Now what do we do?”

The cou­ple went about the te­dious process of pub­licly divvy­ing up their be­long­ings — salt, spices, plates, a pitcher used for wash­ing be­fore prayers. The judge said that Amadou would have sole cus­tody of their son un­til he was seven, and that Issa would pay for the child’s meals for the next two years. “No prob­lem,” Issa said. The cou­ple signed the di­vorce pa­pers, and the judge pounded each page with an of­fi­cial stamp.

“Is this good for you?” said the judge, turn­ing to Amadou. “I think this is a re­lief for you.”

She nod­ded, a wide smile spread­ing across her face. Amadou plans to marry again, to some­one who loves her back.

Pic­ture: NYT

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