By Dionne Searcey
Jan. 6, 2019
He didn’t hit her. He didn’t yell. He
didn’t cheat, as far as she knows. It was just that, less than two years into
their marriage, Zalika Amadou’s husband had changed. He’d become far too
neglectful and indifferent for a young woman who expected, well, more.
Her mother, who had gotten married at 14 to
a stranger twice her age, couldn’t understand the fuss. She’d stuck with her
husband for five decades until he died, and was appalled that young women these
days didn’t do the same.
But for Ms. Amadou, who married at 16,
simply having a husband was not enough. She never wanted to depend on a man in
the first place. So, on a busy morning in Maradi, Niger, she sat in front of a
judge at a crowded Islamic court on the sidewalk and asked for what young women
across the region are seeking like never before: a divorce.
For centuries, women have been expected to
endure bad marriages in many conservative pockets of West Africa. Divorce
happened, but most often the husbands were the ones casting off their partners.
Tradition has bound women so tightly that spouses are sometimes chosen for
babies in the womb.
“It’s the end of the world when a husband
and wife don’t stay together,” said Ms. Amadou’s mother, Halima Amadou.
But here in Niger, a place where women have
less education, lower living standards and less equality with men than just
about anywhere else in the world, a quiet revolution is playing out.
Many women like Ms. Amadou come to this
sidewalk court every month to push for a divorce, frustrated not only by their
husbands’ inability to earn a living during a time of economic hardship, but also
because their basic views on relationships have changed.
They want to choose whom and when to marry,
not be pushed into marriages like so many generations of women before them.
They demand respect and, better yet, love, speaking openly of wanting a healthy
sex life. And when their husbands fall short, women are the ones driving this
new culture of breakups.
“Young women now go into marriages with
certain expectations,” said Alou Hama Maiga, the secretary general of the
Islamic Association of Niger. “If these expectations are not met at some point,
then divorce is inevitable.”
The Islamic judge who presides over the
street-side religious court in Maradi, Niger’s third-largest city, said that
divorces initiated by women had doubled in the past three years, with nearly 50
women a month coming to end their marriages.
“These young women don’t want to suffer any
more,” said the judge, Alkali Laouali Ismaël. “There is a solution to their
problems, and they know they can find it here.”
Lawyers, women’s associations, local
officials and academics who study the region say the increase is happening
across West Africa — in urban and rural, as well as Muslim and Christian, areas
— as women assert more control over their relationships.
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
work force, 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 percent 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.
Across West Africa, people are pouring into
cities from the countryside, leaving behind parents and local traditions. The
push for women’s rights has expanded, with more nations signing on to
international commitments to gender equality. Governments have passed laws
against domestic abuse and discrimination against women, and many nations now
have ministries of women’s affairs.
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.
In Nigeria, a Nollywood movie called “Wives
on Strike,” about a group of women who band together against a bad husband and
father, was so popular it spawned a sequel and a television series.
“Younger women realize that their lives do
not have to end when their marriages end,” said Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, a
senior lecturer at Babcock University in Nigeria.
The new reality baffles many older people
in Maradi, where Ms. Amadou sought her divorce, but the cultural shift is
shouting all around them. Billboards, talk shows and even hip-hop lyrics remind
young women of their rights as wives. Government-sponsored radio programs
broadcast sermons teaching women that they have the right to leave failing
In the center of the city, girls sat
outside a cluster of huts, plucking chickens by moonlight and gossiping about
friends who had divorced. One of the girls’ aunts, Fatima Ida, 74, sat nearby,
listening with a scowl.
Ms. Ida saw her husband for the first time
on her wedding day and stayed with him for decades. She was sickened by all the
divorce in her family: a young niece, two of her daughters, a granddaughter.
“What’s for sure is women nowadays, as soon
as they feel pain, they leave their marriages,” she said.
The Strains of War
Ms. Amadou spent her childhood in Maradi, a
busy city of small shops and open-air markets ringed by clusters of farming
It was at a wedding that a friend played
matchmaker for Ms. Amadou, pointing out a man twice her age, Noura Issa, among
the many guests.
Ms. 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 Mr. Issa could visit her, Ms. 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, Mr. 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.
Nigeria’s economic crisis had spread across the border to Maradi, a major
trading center between the two countries.
Already impoverished, Niger has been
particularly hard hit by the spillover of problems from Nigeria, including
nearly 10 years of war with Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group that has
torn through the region.
A few years ago Mr. Issa was earning the
equivalent of nearly $14 a day, sewing and hemming clothes. Suddenly, he
couldn’t earn half that much.
In Maradi, the wartime economy has hurt
Husbands often travel to look for work,
historically to nearby Nigeria or sometimes farther afield. The name of the
tradition shows how widespread it is: exodus.
But many areas in Nigeria are too dangerous
now. Many men have been driven farther abroad, for greater lengths of time.
Some don’t come home for years, adding to the strain on marriages.
“Husbands can’t support their wives the way
they used to,” said Mr. Ismaël, the religious judge.
“I’m trying to slow things down”
The economic problems are compounded in
Niger because polygamy is so common. Men in the mostly Muslim nation can have
up to four wives. The country also has the highest birth-rate in the world,
with women in Niger giving birth to seven children on average. Mr. Ismaël says
most of the women who come before his court seeking divorce cite financial
One by one, in hours long court sessions
punctuated only by daily prayers, young women sit before Mr. Ismaël, their divorce
cases squeezed in between land disputes and inheritance spats.
Mr. Ismaël is a Kadi, 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.
“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.
Ms. 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 Ms. 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
“I could have forgiven everything else,”
she said. “But I was on the brink of childbirth and he didn’t come.”
Mr. Issa, her husband, couldn’t stay quiet
“She lies so much,” he said.
A few months into the couple’s marriage,
Mr. Issa earned barely enough to survive, let alone buy his wife little extras.
He never had time to give her the tailoring
lessons he promised, and they lived on the edge of town, far away from her
mother. Mr. Issa wouldn’t let her leave home without permission.
Ms. Amadou was bored, and missed her
friends. And she was stuck with an older man who had stopped doting on her.
“A girl must be married”
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 United Nations.
Driving the early marriages is a fear that
girls will shame their families by becoming pregnant before they wed. Some
girls are even kept out of school over those worries.
“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
But the push to limit child marriage has
helped shift attitudes. In recent years, aid groups have poured in to alleviate
poverty and stem population growth by focusing on child and forced marriages.
Local groups and Niger’s government have joined in.
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
“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
A member of the government’s child
protection program paid a visit to the home and encouraged her parents to drop
the idea. Eventually they relented, promising to reimburse the man for the
“My dad is still mad at me because I made
him lose money,” she said.
The Right to Be Treated Well
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.
Skimpy bikinis made only of plastic beads
hang on the walls. Lotions and oils line the shelves. One young woman arrived
for counselling from the organization, called Dynamic Women, 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
Ms. 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
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.
Ms. Idi demanded a divorce after she came
home to find another woman in her house. One friend advised her to calm down.
“I said: ‘I’m not going to calm down. He
doesn’t treat me right,” she said. “I need affection.”
In Ms. Amadou’s case, she spent most of the
day in the house, alone, finding company in her radio. She was a regular
listener of 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. “My friends
pushed me to stand up for my rights.”
Ms. Amadou took her friends’ advice and
decided to get a divorce. She 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, Mr. Issa dropped his
head, conceding that finances were tight and that he didn’t give Ms. 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.
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,” Mr. 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 Ms. Amadou would have sole
custody of their son until he was 7, and that Mr. Issa would pay for the
child’s meals for the next two years.
“No problem,” Mr. 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 Ms. Amadou. “I think this is a relief for you.”
She nodded, a wide smile spreading across
her face. Ms. Amadou plans to marry again, to someone who loves her back.