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More Women In Niger Take Control Of Their Marriages, Seek Divorces


In Niger, divorce court takes place on public sidewalks out in the open. Dionne Searcey is the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, and she has seen one in action.

DIONNE SEARCEY: The judge's bench was a double sheepskin rug. And cars were driving by. It was hard to hear sometimes. And there was a giant crowd of people around, and they were all men. And the women would part the crowd, and they just looked so small compared to all these men standing there.

MARTIN: Today, more women in Muslim-majority Niger are showing up at these courts, having triggered their own divorce. Searcey joined me earlier this week, and she said that this is part of a larger movement in West Africa, women taking control of their marriages and their relationships.

SEARCEY: I went to Niger to explore a story about forced marriages and child marriages. And Niger is one of those countries that has all the bad superlatives - one of the highest illiteracy rates for girls, one of the poorest countries in the world. This is a place where genital cutting still happens. And I stumbled upon an Islamic court judge, and he started telling me that he's seen a lot of divorce cases. And not just regular divorce cases, but cases that are initiated by women.

MARTIN: When you have spoken to these women, why are they making this kind of change in their life? What is convincing them that it's safe to do so?

SEARCEY: Well, I spoke with a teenager, named Zalika (ph), for instance, who had met a man at a wedding. She wasn't really thinking about getting married. She told me she didn't find him particularly attractive, but he was nice to her mom. And she thought they could have a nice life together. And as, you know, many relationships start to sort of fade as time goes on, he didn't want her to work, and she wanted to work. So every day, she sat inside her house and just stewed. Then she got pregnant, and when she was in labor, he didn't even come to the hospital. And that was enough for her. But what's happening in Niger is a change. Women and girls have more access to media, to TV shows, to radio shows...

MARTIN: That show women living more independent lives.

SEARCEY: Yeah. And another huge factor is more people are moving to cities, and that's affecting the way people are thinking in huge ways, and this is just one of them.

MARTIN: Divorce is legal there, right? And women have always officially had the right to file for divorce. So why didn't they use it?

SEARCEY: Well, I think before, it was really a woman's place to stay in a marriage. And, you know, divorce, for sure, has happened across West Africa and across Niger. But, you know, in talking to a lot of these girls' mothers, the mothers all had told me, listen, I got married to a stranger when I was 14, and I stuck it out for 50 years and they should stick it out, too.

MARTIN: Interesting.

SEARCEY: It's just a generational difference.

MARTIN: How are men reacting to this shift?

SEARCEY: You know, I think the men that I talked to, none of them were particularly happy. I mean, the women - you know, divorce isn't a pleasant thing. You know, it's going to be hard for these women. But they all had told me they wanted to remarry, and I expect the men would remarry, too. But the thing that I thought was a bright spot in all this is everybody seemed to want to have a relationship based on love, and that's very different. I mean, this is a place where a lot of parents trade off their young girls to be married to get the dowry.

MARTIN: We've talked about the young woman you profiled in your piece, Zalika. Did that young woman, Zalika, ever get her divorce?

SEARCEY: She did. She got her divorce. One day, her husband stormed out of the area where the court was being held. Went over and talked to him, and he had all these excuses. You know, he blamed her mother-in-law. He blamed the economy. He said, I'm tired of coming here - fine. I'll give her the divorce. And the next day, they said they're absolutely unable to work it out, and the judge gave them their divorce.

MARTIN: Dionne Searcey is West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. We spoke with her on Skype. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SEARCEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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