Is marriage the only option? By Ayisha Osori



“The social context in which these women live is one where being ‘Mrs’ or Matan kaza has become the most important thing on earth for many reasons. One, men and women have been socialized to believe that a female of marriageable age is not respectable if she is not married – this is a fact throughout Nigeria. Unmarried women report higher incidences of sexual related violence and intimidation than married women and so women rush into and stay in marriage for the cover of respectability.   Two – being married becomes a matter of survival.”

 

So many thoughts should race around a Nigerian mind when they hear that Kano State – the Nigerian champion of high divorce rates is preparing to spend millions to arrange marriages for 1000 divorced and  widowed women. Is this the best use of the time and resources of the Kano State Government? Is this the only way to tackle the problem diagnosed by the Kano Hisbah Board as women ‘left to resort to desperate means to survive’? What are the chances of survival of these induced marriages considering the Kano divorce data? And most interestingly: what type of woman would participate in and/or look forward to this type of arrangement?

Part of the answer to the last question comes from the Hisbah Board – women who are desperate to survive in a society which has deliberately created a social structure which makes it near impossible for a Muslim woman from the North to live in dignity and make a decent living for herself and her loved ones. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and other agencies, over 70% of the women who will be participating in the government sponsored wedding are unable to read and write. They have either never been to school or left school as they reached puberty. These are women with little information about birth control who will have an average of 6 children in their lives at least half delivered without proper medical attention. At least 60 of them would be  understanding victims of domestic violence – understanding because research says that 82% of 15-24 year old women in the North West of Nigeria believe that domestic violence is acceptable for issues related to cooking, sex and child rearing. These women will have had sisters, friends or even daughters who have died from childbirth or who are living with Vesico Vaginal Fistula. And to crown it all – majority will be within the bracket considered to be living below the poverty line (100 million Nigerians according to the NBS) with little means of supporting themselves except by eking out a living on trading and the obligatory mercy of family and friends.

The social context in which these women live is one where being ‘Mrs’ or Matan kaza has become the most important thing on earth for many reasons. One, men and women have been socialized to believe that a female of marriageable age is not respectable if she is not married – this is a fact throughout Nigeria. Unmarried women report higher incidences of sexual related violence and intimidation than married women and so women rush into and stay in marriage for the cover of respectability.   Two – being married becomes a matter of survival. Not educated because of poverty and/or because families believe there is little sense in educating girls who will end up ‘somewhere else’, these 1000 women are looking for financial security, a roof over their heads and a home for their children in the very rare case where a new husband will take in ‘another man’s children’. Besides, most of these already divorced/widowed women are no longer welcome at wherever they call home. Their fathers/brothers houses are already bursting at the seams with many wives and children and there is no room for extra mouths to feed – and so the cycle continues with women in and out of the homes and beds of men who can discard them as quickly as it takes to say ‘talak’.

Any sympathy towards the plight of Kano in trying to deal with the fallout of quickie marriages and divorces: displaced and neglected children who fuel the burgeoning almajiri army is neutralized with equal amounts of exasperation with the shortsightedness of these plans. Making marriage easier is not a sustainable long-term solution for single women of no means and neglected children. There are two key solutions: educate and empower women and correct the twisted application of Islamic family law.

Without the skills and/or financial resources to fend for themselves the options of such women are virtually non-existence: literally between a rock and a hard place. The rock is being ‘at home’ scorned for not being able to keep a husband, with little privacy in a house where she is a second-class citizen who must eat what she is given and sleep where she is told to all while dealing with the heartbreak of being torn from her children. The hard place is to get into another marriage with the false hope that it will be better…when absolutely nothing has changed. The men have not changed, the State has not changed and the realities of the women – right where society wants them to be – has also not changed.

What are the guarantees that these marriages will last longer than the average 2-year life span for Kano marriages? Voice of Widows, Orphans and Divorcees Association of Nigeria (VOWAN) one of the organisations supporting the preparations for the marriages says the prospective brides have been tutored on how to keep a man happy but admit that the men – looking for fair and obedient wives – also need coaching but this is not part of the Kano marriage package.

While educating and empowering women will take decades to address the anomalies, addressing the legal framework can make a real difference overnight. Islamic laws and rules around divorce and maintenance of children are fair and clear, yet neither the judges nor society seem to be aware. No one would realize it from the practice of Nigerians that divorce in Islam is deeply abhorred, only permitted for serious irreconcilable reasons and comes with strict conditions.For instance for 3 months after a divorce a woman and her children must remain in the husband’s house maintained as usual. Then depending on the age and gender of the children, the woman retains custody at the cost of the father including keeping a roof over their heads. Instead of spending millions on weddings that have an expiry date Kano State should focus on re-training the judges and imams on the Islamic rules of divorce, custody and maintenance and educating society at large – especially women – so that they can protect themselves. Part of this money could also be spent on training and employing enforcers of these laws, so  that as VOMWAN has suggested, marriages and divorces are registered centrally and men who renege on their responsibilities to their ex-wives and children are punished.

It is not too late to give these women and others like them a new lease in life – (re) marriage) is not the only option. Kano has so many competitive advantages and options which could turn things around – but no, they just want to keep propping up an unjust system which will never work efficiently and in the end – everyone loses.

 

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