Divorce is as common in Niger as in Norway

DIVORCE / Despite variations in bride prices, getting married in Niger can be costly, and women are obligated to repay the bride price in the event of a divorce.

Les Ruptures Conjugales en Afrique Subsaharienne Musulmane
Author: Alhassane A. Najoum
Publisher: L’Harmattan, France

327 densely packed pages in French about divorce in Niger’s capital Niamey is unlikely to become a bestseller in Norway. It is sad – there is a lot to learn and wonder about here.

I did not know that divorce is as common in Niger as it is in Norway: 40-50 percent of marriages end in dissolution. Infidelity is one of the reasons given in both countries, but that is where the similarities end.

Niger is according to Les ruptures conjugales en Afrique subsaharienne musulmane, the country in the world where women have the highest fertility rate. On average, each woman gives birth to 6.5 children. This is a decrease since 2000 when the fertility rate was 7.7. By comparison, we in Norway are now at 1.5 children per woman. While children are expensive to raise in Norway, in Niger, especially in rural areas, they are a source of income and life insurance for parents. Thus, it is easier to understand that sterility is one of the most common causes of divorce for both men and women.

Another source of marital breakdown is the quarrelling between co-wives in polygamous marriages. While the man emphasizes the division of labour between the wives as a great advantage, the reality is often marked by jealousy and suspicion between the co-wives. The man cannot – or will not – treat them equally, neither emotionally, materially, nor sexually. And one or more wives may become very frustrated by this and seek divorce. They seldom manage to obtain it, but they can move out of the household and potentially remarry religiously even though they are still formally and legally married.

the bride price in Niger goes to the bride herself.

Married before they turn 18

Age difference between spouses is a third reason for relationship problems. Half of the girls in Niger are married before they turn 18. The men, who must save money for a bride price before they can marry, are more than 10 years older. In polygamous marriages where the man finds new, young wives if his income allows, the age difference is even higher. In Niger, one out of five wives under 24 has a co-wife, while more than one out of three of the older wives (over 45 years) has one or more co-wives. Whether this says something about if polygamous marriage is becoming less common or if men take new wives as soon as they can afford it, Najoum does not discuss.

But in any case, getting married in Niger is expensive even though the bride price varies. It is usually higher in Niamey than in rural areas, higher for girls from highly respected families, and even higher if the girls are pretty. Only if the prospective bride is related to the groom can the price be negotiated down.


True love?

The former couples Najoum has interviewed estimate that the men had spent between 12,000 and 18,000 kroner in connection with the marriage. This is a lot in a country where a public employee often does not earn more than 1,500 kroner per month. At the same time, the bride price is constantly increasing. The bride’s family values what the men have had to sacrifice to obtain their daughter. And the ability to plan economically is important in a country where the government does not step in if one loses their livelihood. «You can’t eat love», is a common answer when Najoum asks if it is true love that makes for a good marriage. All of this helps explain why men are relatively old when they get married – they must have worked themselves up to a considerable fortune.

Unlike many other places where the bride price goes to the bride’s family as a form of compensation for lost labour and reduced family size, the bride price in Niger goes to the bride herself. And it consists not only of money, but also rice and salt, soap and washbasins, dresses and shoes… things a married woman needs to keep herself and her household presentable.

In Norway and Niger, in the event of a divorce, women are required to repay the bride price, which in most cases is economically impossible. As a result, couples who separate remain married. This form of informal divorce is so common in Niger that it has its own term: tashi.

But before they get to that point, the couples have usually gone through various forms of reconciliation attempts, or family therapy as we would call it here. Typically, the closest family members on both sides step in and «reason» with the couple. If this does not work, the person who wants to divorce seeks help from various Muslim organizations but often receives advice on how to preserve the marriage despite the conflicts. Those who have managed to get legally and formally divorced have spent three to four years on the process and large sums of money.

Referring to the Norwegian anthropologist Signe Howell, Nadjoum argues towards the end of the book that for marriages in Niger to succeed, they require roughly the same active kinship process as adopted children in Norway. And that’s where Norway and Niger resemble each other a bit…

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansenhttp://stavanger.academia.edu/KetilHansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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