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Divorce is as common in Niger as in Norway

The conjugal ruptures in Muslim sub-Saharan Africa
Forfatter: Alhassane A. Najoum
Forlag: L’Harmattan, (Frankrike)
COMMUNITY BREACH / It is expensive to get married in Niger even though the bride price varies, and in the event of divorce, women are obliged to pay back the bride price.


327 densely packed pages in French about adultery in Niger's capital Niamey are unlikely to be a bestseller in Norway. It's sad – because here's a lot to learn and a lot to wonder about.

I did not know that divorce is as common in Niger as in Norway: 40–50 per cent of marriages break up. Infidelity is one of the reasons used in both countries, but that is where the similarities end.

Niger is according to The conjugal ruptures in Muslim sub-Saharan Africa the country in the world where women have the highest fertility. On average, every woman gives birth to 6,5 children. This is a decrease since the year 2000, when the fertility rate was 7,7. In comparison, we in Norway now have 1,5 children per woman. While children are expensive to run in Norway, children in Niger, especially in rural areas, are a source of income and a life insurance for the parents. Thus, it is easier to understand that sterility is one of the most common causes of divorce for both men and women.

The bridal award in Niger goes to the bride herself.

Another germ of marital breakdown is arguing between cohabiting partners in polygamous marriages. While the husband emphasizes the division of labor between the wives as a great advantage, the reality is often characterized by jealousy and suspicion between the fellow wives. The man is not able – or will not – treat them equally, neither emotionally, materially nor sexually. And one or more wives can get very frustrated by this and want a divorce. They rarely manage to get granted, but they can move out of the household and possibly remarry in a religious way even if they are still formally and legally married.

Married before the age of 18

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

But anyway, it is expensive to get married in Niger even though the bride price varies. It is usually higher in Niamey than in the countryside, it is higher for girls from highly respected families and even higher if the girls are pretty. Only if the future bride is related to the groom, the price can be negotiated down.


True love?

The former couples Najoum has interviewed, estimate that the men had spent between 12 and 000 kroner in connection with the marriage. There is a lot in a country where a public employee often does not earn more than 18 kroner a month. At the same time, the bridal price is constantly rising. The bride's family appreciates what the men have had to sacrifice along the way to get their daughter exactly. And the ability to financially plan is important in a country where the public sector does not step in if you lose your livelihood. "You do not eat love", is repeated when Najoum asks if it is real love that gives a good marriage. All this helps to explain why men are relatively old when they get married – they must have earned a considerable fortune.

Rice and salt, soap and washbasins, dresses and shoes…

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

Norway and Niger

In the event of divorce, women are obliged to repay the bridal price, which in most cases is financially impossible. Thus, divorcing couples remain married. So common is this form of informal divorce in Niger that it has its own designation: tashi.

But before they get this far, the couples have usually been through various forms of reconciliation attempts, or family therapy, as we would call it here. First, the immediate family on both sides usually step in and "talk sense" to the couple. If this does not work out, those who want to divorce go to various Muslim organizations for help – but often experience advice on how marriage can be preserved despite the conflicts. Those who have managed to get divorced legally and formally have spent three to four years on the process and large sums of money.

With reference to the Norwegian anthropologist Signe Howell, Nadjoum claims towards the end of the book that marriage in Niger to be successful requires about the same active kinship process (adoption) that adopted children in Norway need. And then there was a moment where Norway and Niger were a bit similar…

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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