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I was reporting in the West African nation of Niger when the Unicef workers I was traveling with suggested we make a side trip to a clinic that treats women suffering from fistula.
Fistula occurs when the lining between the bladder and the vagina is punctured. It happens often to girls when they experience tears while delivering babies before their bodies are fully developed. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written extensively about the condition, which often leaves the girls unable to control their bladders, viewed as dirty and ejected from their families.
There was steady demand for treatment of fistula in Niger, a poverty-stricken nation with high rates of child marriage. The fistula facility we toured was near a leprosy clinic, a sign of just how stigmatized these patients are by society. It also treated girls who had been subjected to genital cutting, a practice that has been outlawed but still occurs in some places.
I was there to learn about girls whose parents had forced them into marriage. Niger has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, but there were signs that the practice had been slowing, at least a little. I went to villages where girls had bravely resisted marriage, sometimes enduring beatings for doing so. They had been helped by aid workers and government employees who were trying to stop the practice.
My reporting took me in an unexpected direction after I met with a judge who oversaw a street-side Islamic court.
The judge, Alkali Laouali Ismaël, told me he had noticed that in his city, Maradi, women and girls were taking control of their relationships in new and positive ways.
More and more, he said, they were leaving husbands who didn’t meet their expectations. Some were angry over being denied the right to work by their husbands, even though the region is suffering economically. Some were unhappy with their sex lives. Many were asking for a divorce.
Divorce wasn’t always a positive outcome, he explained, but it was a sign that women knew their rights and were demanding respect, and happiness, in their marriages. He invited me to sit in on his court sessions.
His bench was nothing more than a double sheepskin rug on a sidewalk, where he plops down with his bare calloused feet poking out from under a shiny gown. Two associates flanked him, wearing dark sunglasses and whispering in his ear. I heard cases on land disputes, inheritance spats and, one morning, a case between two squabbling prostitutes.
“Just go, you’re wasting my time,” he told them, accusing one of being high on marijuana and the other of being drunk.
The testimony in the divorce cases I listened to could have been aired by annoyed wives in courtrooms, or living rooms, anywhere in the world: complaints about deadbeat dads; husbands who forgot to run errands on the way home from work.
During the hearings, cars, motorbikes and sheep passed, all of them sometimes drowning out Mr. Ismaël’s soft but firm counsel.
“I wasn’t the one who rejected her,” a man at one hearing pleaded, contending that he deserved more than half of the divorcing couple’s belongings.
“You are a good man,” the judge told him. “But you are not realistic.”
One of the petitioners was Saadia Halidou, 27, who had expected to fold her married life into her active social life, a busy calendar of weddings, other celebrations and selling cakes at the local market. But her husband insisted she stay home when he wasn’t around.
“When someone was sick, he didn’t even let me go visit them,” she said. “If it were a tree he’d take better care of it, but I’m a human being.”
She knew asking for a divorce wasn’t going to please her parents, but she had to get out of her marriage.
“No, no, no, I wasn’t used to this life,” Ms. Halidou said.
I went to a religious center across town called Dynamic Women, where women took cooking and sewing classes — and sought advice about unfulfilled sex lives.
The photographer Laura Boushnak and I followed some of the women home. I interviewed them and their parents into the night, taking notes with the help of someone holding the light from her phone over my notebook. There was no electricity in the evenings.
Women were taking control of their relationships across the region, I learned through more reporting, even in places like Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, with high rates of illiteracy. The women I met were so inspiring, I plan to include more of their stories in a book I’m writing that will be out in early 2020.
At his sidewalk court, Mr. Ismaël was helping to make things better for women.
“Islam grants women their rights,” he said, “and they know their rights.”
I knew the divorcing women would face economic struggles in the future without added income from their husbands. Almost all of them told me they wanted to marry again eventually, when they found a man who would treat them right.
Niger is still lagging when it comes to quality of life for women, but I was happy to find a bit of brightness there for some young women who were part of a quiet new resistance.
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