W. AFRICA DIVORCES
“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.