Two girls in Niger escape the violence of their circumstances
By Charlotte Arnaud
Two girls – one forced to marry an abusive husband, the other a housemaid at age 12 – illustrate the everyday risks faced by girls in Niger.
MIAMEY, Niger, 11 October 2013 - Two years ago, 17-year-old Barira*, ran away from home. It was not the home she had grown up in with her parents. It was the home she shared with her husband.
“I was married when I was 15,” Barira says. “It was a forced marriage, and I suffered a lot.” Her parents had arranged the marriage, not suspecting that her husband would turn out to be abusive.
For her sake and the sake of her now one-month-old little girl, Barira decided to run away from home.
“I ran. I met people on the road who brought me back to my parents,” she says. “When I left [my husband’s] home I was pregnant.”
The violence Barira experienced in her own home is but one example of the vulnerability of girls in Niger. The common practices of early marriage and child labour, combined with limited educational opportunities, put many girls at risk for abuse and exploitation.
As many as 75 per cent of women in Niger aged 20 to 24 were married before 18, and 36 per cent were married before age 15. The potential impacts are many: school dropouts, domestic violence, aggression from co-wives, mental health issues, and early pregnancies with high risk of fistula and maternal mortality.
Barira’s parents wanted her to move back in with her husband, but she refused.
“They insisted he was family and told me I wasn’t in a position to say no,” she says. “I couldn’t accept that, because he was hitting me. It was too much suffering.”
For many of those who flee forced marriages, drug addiction and prostitution become easy traps. Fortunately for Barira, she now lives in her parents’ house with her baby, and her parents regret having married off their daughter without her consent – but things don’t always end this way.
Child labour rates in Niger reach as high as 43 per cent. Hadiza, like thousands of other young girls, did not have access to school and had to work at age 12 as a maid to take care of her blind grandmother and her little brother.
Forced to work
Hadiza’s situation was different, but it also shows the dangers faced by girls in one of the world’s least developed countries. The 15-year-old lost her parents at a young age and had to take care of her blind grandmother and her younger brother. Like many young girls in Niger, she had to find a way to make money to provide for her family.
She decided first to work as a salesgirl on the streets of her village. “When I was out working, men would come asking to sleep with me,” Hadiza says. “I was scared – it was hard and I stopped this job.”
At 12, she found work as a helper in a house occupied by a man, his three wives and 20 children. Every day, Hadiza had to sweep, do the laundry, wash the dishes and do other chores to keep all members of this large family happy. It was an exhausting challenge.
“If one of the wives called me to do something for her, the other ones would get mad,” Hadiza recalls. “The children insulted my dead parents, and the first wife had a girl who hit me.”
Child labour among 5- to 14-year-olds in Niger is as high as 43 per cent. Children are often pressured to work before or after school, during holidays and sometimes, as in Hadiza’s case, instead of going to school.
“I was only paid 3,000 CFA [US$6] per month. I stopped this job because I was abused,” Hadiza says. “Today my little brother repairs radios and lamps, and it is thanks to the money he is making that we can buy manioc flour to eat.”
Eradicating the practices of early marriage and child labour in Niger will be a long-term effort. UNICEF and it partners understand that it takes commitment, local ownership and a holistic approach to address the root causes of these issues. Foremost among these efforts is to promote girls schooling and reduce disparities in access to education. By joining these initiatives with stronger protection mechanisms and awareness-raising among those in positions of influence, building a better future for girls in Niger is not just a wish but a real possibility.
*Names have been changed.