BY NNEOMA EKWEGH
On February 21st, 2020, Twitter user, @AnnebrafaEsq, declared that since the year began there had been 4000 divorce applications in Abuja, Nigeria, alone. And although her viral report was discredited by an Abuja-based lawyer who specialises in family law, the alarming report still prompted a conversation on Twitter, as many people tried to grasp why it seemed like more marriages were failing. Considering the theme of many conversations on Twitter, many seemed to, unsurprisingly, blame: feminism, immaturity, the woke generation, and an unwillingness to “work things out”. All rather general and vague and inaccurate. And one question still remains, has anyone bothered asking the people filing for divorce, what may have caused them to make that decision? We did.
For Miriam* who is separated from her husband of eight years, her reason has nothing to do with either feminism or being part of the woke generation. It was a choice to step out of an environment that was becoming hostile. She says, “There was infidelity, bullying, and soon threats of physical harm followed”. When it comes to divorce, there are a plethora of reasons why it happens, but for Lesley Agams, a lawyer who has been handling divorce cases for 30 years, the most common grounds for women filing for divorce remains domestic violence or other forms of abusive behaviour.
According to a national demographic and health survey cited by Guardian, a third of all Nigerian women have experienced physical violence, which encompasses battery, marital rape, and murder at the hands of intimate partners. Miriam has been separated from her husband for almost two years – a grounds for divorce under the 1970 Matrimonial Causes Act – and is intending to seek divorce after crossing the two-year mark.
Speaking of her time away from her husband she says: “It has been difficult living alone, after sharing a space with someone for eight years and having a lot of the decision-making done by [them]. But if I am to be honest, it has been a time of clarity for me. I was very timid in my marriage. I rarely spoke up, out of fear. Now I feel like this is the Me I was always meant to be: Confident, strong, outspoken. As women we are told by society and family, that to become a wife you must be quiet; seen and not heard, agreeable. Letting him lead means letting him have his way, so you do whatever, take whatever, because his happiness is the priority. That is what you are taught.”
“The reality of shame, and being ostracised by family and peers are experiences that any woman considering divorce must be prepared to face and though Miriam was cautioned about this repeatedly by family members and friends, the consequences did not matter.”
Living in a patriarchal and religious society like Nigeria, when a woman divorces her spouse, she becomes persona non grata. Maureen Mennor Nwaezeigwe, the founder of Singlemomhood Support Initiative, and a divorcee herself, says, “When the marriage ends the first thing people think is that maybe she didn’t ‘submit enough’, maybe she wasn’t a ‘good girl’, maybe she didn’t have ‘good home training’, to prepare for marriage. It’s just one of the plights of women in Nigeria. A narrative we hope will change.”
The reality of shame, and the fear of being ostracised by family and friends are experiences that any woman considering divorce must be prepared to face, and though Miriam was cautioned about this repeatedly by family members and friends, the consequences did not matter. “I did not care anymore. I had reached a place where I needed to do what was best for me.”
Speaking on the fear-mongering and its impact on women who are considering divorce, Agams says, “While most of this is true. it is also exaggerated to keep women in line. Women should learn to recognise that that is not love.” Miriam adds, “Staying in a marriage or leaving a marriage is a personal choice. People will give you reasons to stay, but is it your reason? Whatever you choose, do it for you. Know why you left, why it did not work for you.”
When marriage is discussed, you can always expect someone to bring up how marriages today are failing to live up to marriages of the older generation, and this is usually accompanied by a profuse lament on the loss of values today. But Agams has a different understanding regarding the spike in divorce, she says, “Women are less willing to stay in an unhealthy relationship.
[Also] more women are getting married under statutory law than they did 30 or even 20 years ago; customary divorce (which includes Muslim marriages) are fairly easy to get. With the increase in statutory marriages we should expect an increase in divorce filings.” However, Agams notes that the economic impact of divorce on women and children remains a major issue, she goes on to advise that, “Women should try to be financially independent before marriage and keep their property separate from their husbands.
A lot of men try to punish their ex-wives by withholding or limiting necessary financial support. There are also men who deliberately marry women and make them financially dependent, thus making it harder for the woman to leave or survive when she is bold enough to leave.” Maureen has come across hundreds of women through her NGO and she agrees that there is a financial burden that divorced or separated women carry.
“[These] women go through a lot financially. Most of the women who come are struggling because the income is not enough. She is taking care of house rent, bills, medicals, socials, food, school fees, and in Nigeria I can tell you categorically there is no help for her. You go to the police, they will make the man write an undertaking [to give financial support] at the end of the day he doesn’t do it, they say give him time. After sometime they say take him to court. When you go to child protective services in Alausa, they take your story as well as his, then they instruct him to fulfil his obligation, the man does not heed to it and Alausa tells you to take him to court, and the circle just keeps going round.”
Patriarchy, religion and gender inequality are the three-fold chords that bind many women in abusive and toxic marriages. Together, these three elements excuse the abuser and shame the abused, Miriam says, “I remember one of the times my husband and I went for counselling with our pastor and his wife.
The first thing the pastor’s wife said even before I spoke was, if he doesn’t beat you I don’t see a problem here. I immediately shut-down because I knew nothing I said would matter, nothing he had done to me would matter until he carried his threat to beat me. I have played that scenario countless times and it cuts me up afresh each time. I felt so small, so ashamed, I began to second guess myself; maybe the abuse was not so bad, maybe the name calling was not so bad, maybe becoming a sexual object was not so bad.”
According to the Holms-Rahe stress scale, divorce is the second most stressful life event a person can experience, second only to the death of a spouse. Divorce is about navigating a new path, and developing a new life and identity separate from marriage, and as psychologist Elisabet Kvarnstrom points out, this is not always easy, “Feelings of shame, anxiety, fear and confusion can become your emotional makeup permanently; this can be the case even if you were the one who chose to leave the marriage”.
Kvarnstrom advises women who are struggling emotionally to consider therapy as a tool to help them better understand their emotions and navigate their new life.Looking ahead at what the future holds for her, Miriam is uncertain but unafraid, “I am in a better place, some days I doubt this because of all the stresses that come with being in this situation, but the fact that there are days I can see it, and feel it gives me confidence to keep walking.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of some subjects in this article.