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Raw deal for women, children as divorce rate rises in Zanzibar

[Tanzania] Many divorced women abandoned by their husbands turn up on Stone Town's streets on Friday to beg for money near mosques and well-off residential areas. [Date picture taken: 04/24/2006]
Women often lack access to reproductive healthcare services (file photo) (Issa Yussuf/IRIN)

Bahati Kassim wakes up at dawn each day to prepare mandazi, or doughnuts, which she sells along the narrow, meandering streets of historical Stone Town, the main town in the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar.

The early Arab traders who settled at the coast built Stone Town over 100 years ago. It is a cosmopolitan spice island with a predominantly Islamic culture.

"I have to bake the mandazi for sale every day to support myself and my children after my husband divorced me three years ago," said the 35-year-old mother of four, "I have no hope uniting with him again!"

Kassim earns at least 2,000 Tanzanian shillings (US $2) a day, which she uses to buy food and school supplies for her children. She rarely sees her former husband.

"After divorcing me, my ex-husband, who has another wife, stopped supporting our children," she said. "I have reported him, without much success, to the ministry concerned with gender, just to press him to provide food and clothing for the children because I cannot manage this burden alone."

Kassim is one of the many divorced women in Zanzibar, which is home to about one million inhabitants. According to the island's Ministry of Youth, Women and Children's Development divorce rates in Zanzibar are rising.

The ministry's spokeswoman, Sharifa Maulid, said the ministry had received complaints regarding lack of child support following divorce. "Once the parents separate, it is the children who suffer," she said.

"Between January and March, we recorded 33 divorce cases," Maulid said. "We normally summon male parents to try to resolve the conflicts. If we fail in reuniting the couple, we then at least press the father to care for the children. We sometimes succeed, and at times we fail."

Maulid said her ministry had not yet tabled a law to deal with child support issues because there were adequate Islamic regulations to guide the resolution of family disputes in the island where 96 percent of its inhabitants are Muslim.

Matters concerning marital disputes and childcare are dealt with under the Kadhi - Islamic Shariah (law) - courts. These courts, which were established in the 1830s, are presided over by the Kadhis (magistrates) under Shariah.

It is under Shariah law that most couples enter into marriage. The numbers of civil marriages are negligible in Zanzibar, and are done in the regular courts or regional administrative offices.

Currently, only Islamic Shariah is used in divorce matters in Zanzibar, while criminal and civil cases are heard in the country's regular courts. However, regular courts can be involved in divorce cases when the Kadhi courts have failed. There are 10 Kadhi's courts in Zanzibar.

Divorce is permitted in Islam as a last resort when all other avenues of dispute resolution have been exhausted. Normally, either partner has the right to seek divorce, although under Shariah, it is the man who concludes divorce or who issues the divorce certificate to the woman.

In a bid to curb the rising divorce rate in Zanzibar, the Kadhi's court is now seeking the enactment of a divorce legislation to be applied concurrently with Islamic regulations governing divorce.

According to Kadhi Sheikh Omar Said, more than 95 percent of the 1,753 marriage disputes brought before the court in the last two years had culminated in divorce, with most of the couples involved ranging from the age of 20.

Zanzibar's director of public prosecution, Othman Masoud, linked the rise in divorce cases in Zanzibar to increasing awareness of individual rights, especially women's rights.

"In the past, there were few divorces in the society, as many women did not know their rights - they were suppressed," Masoud said. "But now, the number of women who know their rights has gone up."

One unfortunate result of this, he added, was that the number of divorce cases had also increased.

"Everybody in the society must take the responsibility of making sure divorce cases are reduced, mainly by advocating for the religious teachings in marriage," Masoud said.

He said the introduction of a law governing divorce would not solve the problem because divorce was a human right. However, women like Kassim and their children continue to lead a difficult life in the absence of divorce legislation that would guarantee them support when marriages break down.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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