Many women are accusing men in Northern Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim society of divorcing them recklessly and leaving them with the financial burden of caring for their children. In this special report by Daily Trust on Sunday, divorced women shared their experiences, their pain and the burden they bear.
At 21, Hafsat Ismail is a divorcee. Living in the suburban neighbourhood of Unguwan Dosa, in Kaduna State, Hafsat’s marriage to a young man of her choice had crashed after only six months. Marriage, she says, is complicated and hers was further intricated by domestic violence that often landed her in the hospital.
A few days into her marriage, the 21-year-old said the man she married for love had suddenly turned on her, hitting her at the slightest provocation and at some point, almost killing her. Six months later, at the twilight of the COVID-19 lockdown in Kaduna State, the marriage broke down completely. However, Hafsat said before the marriage came to an end, her ex-husband had made two divorce pronouncements; an action he denied in an attempt to win her back.
“This time around, he divorced me in front of witnesses. My marriage was very troubled, within its six months lifespan, I had escaped from my matrimonial home more than 20 times,” Hafsat said.
Armed with her new divorce letter and not minding the scares inflicted on her body, the 21-year-old headed straight to a Sharia Court. With the court’s stamp on her letter, she was a free woman and now says she is in no hurry to remarry.
“I got the court’s stamp because men sometimes return to say they never divorced you, especially when you want to remarry. They could claim you’re still their wife,” she said. Now a divorcee, Hafsat says life is even more complicated and is not at all what she expected.
Hafsat’s story is one among millions of others that depict a disturbing rise in the rate of divorce in northern Nigeria. Stakeholders admit the growing menace calls for concern and link it to the region’s emerging social problems such as drug addiction among young men and women, criminality and prostitution.
In an interview with several divorcees across Kaduna, Zaria and Kano, Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that in a typical northern society, where culture and religion dominate almost every aspect of a woman’s place, being a divorcee, for many women comes with a lot of consequences.
Our pain and the burden we bear – Divorcees
Yahanasu Saidu is four times unlucky. At 38, she has married four times; divorced three times and widowed once. “My first marriage crashed after 12 years. I had six children with my first husband but three are deceased. I remarried one year after, but my husband died and we had a daughter who also died,” she told Daily Trust on Sunday on a sunny Monday afternoon outside her parents’ home in Kwangila, Zaria city. “I then married again,” she continued, “but it lasted only 40 days. I still cannot say why my husband divorced me, he also didn’t give any reason in the divorce letter he handed to me, but I have accepted it as destiny. I remarried a fourth time in Makarfi LGA of Kaduna State and that also ended.”
Married into a polygamous home, Yahanasu said trouble started in her fourth home after she got pregnant. She claimed her husband’s first wife could not conceive and so had threatened to burn down the house. With the help of her husband’s relatives, Yahanasu said she was moved into a single room apartment for peace to reign. “I went for almost two months without seeing him, I gave birth to a son and his relatives took care of the naming ceremony but he abandoned us.”
Tired of waiting for her husband, she approached a Sharia Court to summon him. “Initially, he told the court he wasn’t going to divorce me and that he wanted me to return and live with his first wife. I was afraid for my safety and that of my child and so the marriage was eventually dissolved and I was left with a four-month-old baby to return to my parents’ home,” she said.
Seven years later, Yahanasu, who is now an auxiliary nurse and also sews to earn a living, says she bears the burden of her four children as her ex-husbands have abandoned their responsibilities. “My last child is the only child of his father. After our separation, I demanded money for upkeep and at the beginning, he made some efforts but later stopped. Today, my son is almost seven years old and his father doesn’t know anything about his feeding, his health, education or clothing,” she lamented.
For the three surviving children of her first husband, Yahanasu said she recently married off her first child and said after threatening to sue her ex-husband, relatives had intervened and compelled him to pay a monthly child support of N5,000 for his three children. “But it’s now two months since I received the last alert. I will say he tries because he sometimes buys Sallah cloth for the children,” she said.
The story is similar for Aisha Hassan, whose 18-year-old marriage crashed six years ago and now bears the financial and moral burden of her children. Still a bitter-sweet experience, the mother of four said her marriage had been good until her ex-husband made a decision she prefers not to share. With three boys and a girl, Aisha says there is no financial support from their father.
Unlike Yahanasu, however, Aisha was discouraged from seeking legal redress due to family complications. “With the little I make from my business, I am able to provide for my children to go to school and also learn a trade. My parents advised that since God has provided me with the little to cater for my children, I should stop expecting anything from their father.”
At 42, Adama Mohammed still gets emotional when she recalls the pain she endured in the hands of her ex-husband. The food vendor who could not hold back tears narrated how her marriage to a butcher in Kano ended after he left her to her fate while bedridden with a mysterious ailment. Speaking from her bukka (roadside restaurant) where she now earns a living, the mother of seven recounted a harrowing experience of spousal neglect, betrayal and dejection during her most trying period.
A teary-eyed Adama narrated to Daily Trust on Sunday of how her parent’s desperation to find cure for a mysterious ailment that disfigured and discoloured her entire skin took them from one traditionalist to the next for two years.
Two years into her treatment, Adama said her ex-husband had slammed her a divorce letter. “At the early stage of the divorce, my father had requested I returned to my husband because I was recuperating but I pleaded with him to let me be. He eventually succumbed to my pleadings and I have remained a divorcee even though my ex-husband tried to win me back.”
“He is still alive, living in Kano,” she said of the man who abandoned her in her time of need. “We have been divorced for 14-years now but the burden of our seven children falls on me. He has never offered even N10 to buy soap for the children,” she said.
“How society sees us”
“I like to make up and dress well, but some people do not like it. I don’t know if it is because of our culture in the north, but they view us as prostitutes. Once I step out, you hear people whispering, ‘ehen, where is she going to’ and when I return home, it is the same whispers, sometimes they even point fingers,” a disgruntled Hafsat Ismail told Daily Trust on Sunday, while narrating the stigma that comes with being a divorcee.
The 21-year-old, who sells shoes and is a rookie beautician, explained that the major challenge faced by divorcees is being stereotyped as prostitutes. “People are quick to judge us, and even label us prostitutes. No one cares that you are doing some trade to be self sufficient and financially independent. Instead, when a suitor comes for you, the same people; your neighbours, friends will sneak behind you and tell the man that you are a prostitute or that you have been divorced multiple times and therefore are not marriage material,” she said.
Like many women from a low income background, Aisha Hassan was born in Kaduna’s Unguwan Dosa, she grew up there and married there. As a divorcee, she still lives in the same community where everyone calls her by her pet name; Mommy. But since her marriage ended six years ago, the mother of four has remained single, catering for her children and boldly says she has no plan to remarry, even though suitors keep knocking on her door.
Now a business woman who sometimes delves into politics, Aisha appears quite popular as many wave or stop to chat with her while walking the streets of Kaduna’s Unguwan Dosa. “We may be divorcees but we are certainly not prostitutes,” she said in reaction to a growing stereotype against divorced and unmarried women across northern Nigeria.
“A serious suitor could come to you about marriage and tomorrow you hear people from your own community running after him to tell him you are a prostitute and you have married multiple times. Most times, these gossips emanate from people who are angry because you rejected their advances. So, the next thing is to peddle falsehood about you,” said Aisha.
Divorced women blame this growing stigmatization and stereotypical behaviour on the region’s patriarchal social structure that places high premium on men’s opinion over women. The structure also places high value on marrying younger women against divorcees.
Aisha explained that several times, the cultural structure looks the other way when “fraudulent men” take advantage of vulnerable divorcees on the pretence that they intend to marry them. “If you are a fool and give into such men, then yours is finished,” she warned. “There are a lot of such men, they come to us on the pretence of marriage, but actually, what they want is to take advantage of women and disappear.”
The Chairperson of Kano-based Voice of Widows, Divorcees and Orphans of Nigeria (VOWAN), Hajiya Alitine Abdullahi, confirms that men take advantage of divorcees who may have pressing financial needs. “When men divorce women, they leave them in poverty to care of themselves and the children. Any woman who finds herself in such a position, what do you expect from her? Not every woman has the capacity to resist certain offers.”
Abdullahi, who is also a divorcee, said: “The same men that accuse women of prostitution are the problem. A woman has been kicked out of her home without financial support, she is not skilled, yet she is left to care for the children. In most instances, her parents are poor or maybe dead, and when she approaches a man for help, he tells her that he can only assist her if she gives him something in return. Then tomorrow, this same man will tell everyone that she is a prostitute.”
In many cases, even widows are not left out as Rukkaiya Haruna, a soft drink retailer who lost her husband in 2005 explained that she is often smeared as a prostitute whenever she goes out for her businesses. “There are times you hear them saying we go out and then return with money and claim we are in business. If you hear their tone, you’d understand what they are insinuating but if you know that your heart is pure, then you will learn to ignore such gossips.”
Rukkaiya, who also sells wrappers and perfumes, has equally not remarried because she said it is very difficult for another man to accept a woman with children. “So, it is better to care for my children and ensure they get the right education,” she said.
Divorce explosion in northern Nigeria
Last mouth, Zainab Sani who lives in Maraban Jos, Kaduna North LGA, stood before a Sharia Court in Kawo, Kaduna State and demanded a dissolution of her 14-year-old marriage to Sani Ibrahim. It was the same court where 21-year-old Hafsat Ismail earlier in the year brought her divorce letter, for a court stamp. Like Hafsat Ismail, Zainab had asked the court to end her marriage due to years of domestic violence. The distraught wife who offered to return a dowry of N40,000 paid for hand in marriage over a decade ago said her husband batters her at the slightest provocation, even in front of the kids.
Muslims in northern Nigeria abide by Islamic Sharia law which gives men the right to pronounce divorce merely by speaking or writing the words. The process is more complicated for women who will have to approach a Sharia Court and agree to return the bride price paid in their name.
Official data on divorce rate in Nigeria appear non-existent, but a majority of divorce cases in the north are pronounced by men. In a typical Sharia Court in Kaduna, an average of between 30 and 50 divorce cases are filed monthly.
Daily Trust on Sunday gathered from records at the Magajin Gari Sharia Court in the state that in the month of October, about 30 divorce related cases were filed.
This could be higher in courts around Kano State, in Nigeria’s north west, which is unofficially designated the nation’s divorce capital with about 1.7 million registered divorcees, according to VOWAN Chairperson, Hajiya Alitine Abdullahi. In 2005, the state witnessed one of the most audacious women movements when divorcees demanded the enactment of a law that will force men to pay them alimony. By 2009, the women had threatened to storm the streets to protest increasing divorce rates. Though the protest never took place, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje not too long ago said his government was working with Islamic scholars to come up with a document to curb divorce rates which will be presented to the State House of Assembly.
Prominent Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Aminu Daurawa supports such a law and explained that a Family Law that could have addressed the menace of overhasty divorce pronouncements was proposed during the reign of the 14th emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II. The proposal, however, never came to a realisation after it became muddled in a controversy regarding the age of the bride and other issues.
“We were then guided by the Family Law of Morocco, they called it Mudawwana which concerns issues related to family including the regulation of marriage, divorce, polygamy, inheritance and child custody,” he told Daily Trust on Sunday in an exclusive interview.
“Just as such marriages are issued certificates, divorce certificates would also be given and there is need for witnesses in divorce just as in marriages. I can assure you that we need to come up with an Islamic Family Law such as this that can guide family life because if we don’t, a western law will be introduced and imposed on us,” Daurawa said.
Speaking on the importance of such a law, VOWAN Chairperson said: “We are not saying there shouldn’t be divorce, Allah has permitted it. What we are against is reckless divorce pronouncements. Divorce should be made more difficult so that if a man knows the law bestowed certain obligations on him to his divorced wife, then he will think twice.” She however said in northern Nigeria where men call the shots in almost all aspects of life, authorities are sceptical about any change that does not gratify the patriarchal norm.
Though VOWAN could not get a legislation on alimony, the movement, however, gave rise to what has come to be known as the Kano mass wedding which later spread to Kaduna, Katsina, Gombe and Sokoto states.
Mass weddings and implications on divorce rate
“We cannot say the programme was 100 percent successful but if you do something and about 20 percent fails while 80 percent succeeds, then it is good, you can say the mass wedding has been successful,” Sheikh Muhammad Aminu Daurawa, said in reaction to enquiry by Daily Trust on Sunday on whether the mass weddings organised under his watch, as then Commander General of the Kano State Hisbah Board, has addressed the plight of divorcees.
Sheikh Daurawa, who is presently the Chairman of Darul Sunnah Foundation and also Love and Mercy School for Marriage Counselling, stated in a report accessed by Daily Trust on Sunday that the mass weddings saw to the union of over 2,000 marriages contracted between 2012 and 2017. The mass weddings had spread to Kaduna, Gombe, Katsina and Sokoto states where a total of 3,211 marriages were contracted through the intervention.
Chairperson of VOWAN, Altine Abdullahi says the mass wedding had helped divorcees find new homes and financial stability but unequivocally stressed that the mass wedding alone cannot solve the problems associated with high divorce rates in northern Nigeria.
The Kano State Hisbah Board, which was at the forefront of organising the weddings, explained that the board still monitors the couples and counsel them when there are challenges.
Hisbah was established in 2003 as religious police responsible for the enforcement of sharia through arbitrating and voluntary reconciliation of disputes. Its current Commander General, Dr. Haruna Muhammad Ibn Sina, said the rise in divorce rates is a contributory factor to other social problems such as delinquent behaviour among children. He said because of the level of successes recorded from the mass wedding, the board was planning another one and has received over 300 requests from interested participants.
Marriage counselling to the rescue?
Islamic scholars in parts of northern Nigeria are worried by the growing divorce rates in the region and link it to ignorance of religious doctrine on what marriage should be, obligations and spousal rights. The Hisbah Board in Kano has established a school to counsel couples before marriage and says in the near future, the board hopes to work with the state government to compel every prospective couple to enrol and be certified by the programme before being allowed to wed.
Sheikh Darawa has also established the Love and Mercy School for Marriage Counselling to guide prospective couples and the married. “Everywhere in the world, there are counselling opportunities for couples. Couples need to be educated on what marriage is, they need to know why they are getting married and the obligations between one another. And if the marriage comes to an end, then they need to know the rights of spouses,” he said.
He said the school was established to help reduce the rate of divorce in the society and guide couples on the right path of separation if the marriage comes to an end. To reach out to more couples in distress and also help others find life partners, about two months ago, the religious scholar also developed an application called “Auratayya” which has already been downloaded over 10,000 times on Google Play Store.
Watchout for documentary on this story on Trust TV Channel 164 (Startime)