Forced at 15

The West African country of Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world. This tradition jeopardises the future of the young girls forced into such marriages and endangers their health. But more and more girls are fighting back.

A web-documentary by Dirk Gilson

The young bride

Fifteen-year-old Hamsatou holds up a photo of herself on her wedding day. She says this was not a happy day for her.

When I found out that my parents wanted to marry me off, I said no. But they said the wedding would take place whether I agreed to it or not. I asked my brother for help, but he just said I shouldn’t be upset. That’s just the way it goes. - Hamsatou

Hamsatou lives in Gamkalley, a district of Niamey, capital of the desert nation of Niger. Here, when parents make a decision, their daughters must obey.

Hamsatou lived in a mud brick house with her parents and six siblings before she was married off. Her father, Seydou Mahaman, says he made the decision for his daughter to marry because he had no other choice.

Children who don't obey their parents are cursed. - Leila (Hamsatou's mother)

Child marriage as a solution?

Many parents here justify their decisions to marry off their children at a young age in such a manner. Premarital relationships are taboo in their community and becoming pregnant before marriage brings disgrace on the whole family.

Extreme poverty is another major factor in the prevalence of child marriage in Niger. Half of the country’s population lives on less than two dollars a day. Niger is second from the bottom on the current UN Human Development Index.

There is also a rapidly growing and extremely young population. Sixty nine percent of Nigeriens are under 24 years old. On average, each woman bears seven or eight children.

It is difficult for many parents to care for all their children. Marrying daughters off early appears to be a simple solution to the problem.

As a result, nearly a third of all girls are only 15 years old or younger when they marry, and almost 80 percent are married by the time they are 18 years old.

This makes Niger the country with the highest rate of child marriage in the world. In most cases, girls are forced into marriages arranged by parents or relatives. For many, this marks the beginning of a long ordeal.

It’s worth fighting

Nafissa is now 22 years old. "I was 14 at the time and was still at school. They married me to a 34-year-old man whom I didn’t know. My uncle engineered the wedding. It was the son of his friend. I remember it was a good day, I was happy because I got a good mark at school."

"But on the way home everyone was looking at me. They called out to me: 'the young bride, the young bride.' That’s how I found out I was going to be married off."

Nafissa’s husband took her with him to his home village – 1,000 km from her home. After only a few months he began to hit her and forced her into sex. Nafissa became pregnant for the first time aged 15 - she lost her child during childbirth. When she became pregnant the second time, she decided to flee.

"I was two months pregnant at the time. A friend of the family let me live with her. That’s also where I gave birth to my son. When he was five months old, I took him to my grandmother in Niamey. That’s where I heard about the aid program. The staff taught me for a whole year. They built up my confidence and I learned to read and write better."

Nafissa took part in a program run by the local aid organisation SongES. The staff helped her get back to school. She presents her diploma with great pride. And last week she found out she has been accepted on an apprenticeship.

My dream is to become an electrician. I want to work so that I can give my son a better life. And also to support my parents. - Nafissa

Nafissa wants to convince other girls that it's worth fighting. She travels across the country on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as an ambassador in the fight against child marriage.

When I found out that I had passed the final exams, I cried. I cried for joy. You could too. Ask for help from an NGO and go to school. Don’t give up. Then you too can achieve what you want. - Nafissa

An increasing number of girls are fighting back. The local aid organisation SOS is one of the first places they go to seek help when they flee child marriage. Thirteen-year-old Chafa'Atou arrived here from her home village Filingue four days ago. She tells SOS employee Hannatou her story.

"I was at my grandmother’s place as my father called me to him. He told me he was going to marry me off. To an older man who already has a wife and grown-up children. I resisted and tried to explain to him that I am still too young. I begged my mother for help, but she just said I had no choice because my school marks are too bad."

Hannatou hears this kind of story all too often. She is a first responder at SOS and takes care of girls like Chafa’Atou. They are given shelter and the aid workers make contact with relatives in order to mediate. Hannatou has spoken to Chafa’Atou’s parents. They have agreed to wait with the marriage if Chafa’Atou comes back home.

Chafa’Atou is scared that they will change their minds again. That’s why she doesn’t want to go back to school. She thinks that if she gets bad marks again, her parents will want to marry her off again. That’s why she’d rather train to become a tailor now.

I now talk to her parents regularly to make sure that they keep to their word. - Hannatou (SOS first responder)

Chafa'Atou will remain in the care of the aid organisation for the time being. Hannatou first wants to organise a joint visit to her parents. There she will explain to them that the marriage will not only endanger their daughter’s future, but also her health.

Cast out

The medical histories of Sister Allassane’s patients are all quite similar at this center that specialises in the treatment of obstetric fistula.

The women and girls all come from rural regions. Usually, they had been married off as children and became pregnant at a very young age. But, because their bodies are too small and not ready for childbirth this often leads to complications, when, for example, the fetus is too big for the birth canal. The result is often fatal for both mother and child.

Those who survive are usually left with serious injuries. One of the most common is obstetric fistula, when the strain placed on the body during childbirth ruptures the tissue between the vagina and the bladder and a hole, called a fistula, is formed between the organs.

The 22-year-old patient Fati explains what this can mean.

"I was 15 when I became pregnant. I was in labor for three days before they took me to the doctor. He helped me to have my baby, but didn’t treat me any further. A short time later I suddenly noticed that I couldn’t hold my urine any more. I was embarrassed. Not being able to control your bladder is unbelievable for an adult. It dribbled out the whole time, wherever I was. I thought I was going to go crazy."

Fati has been undergoing treatment for seven years. She spent the first four years here in the clinic and has been coming for regular check ups for the last three years. It’s not unusual for the treatment of fistula to take so long. Women usually have to endure several operations in order to rebuild the damaged tissue.

Fati has undergone six surgeries. And there are only a few doctors, so women often have to wait a very long time between operations. In addition, the clinic is the only place that many of the girls can stay, says nurse Allassane.

"Many of our patients were cast out from their families after the birth of their children. Some of them have been here for six or seven years and have never had a visitor. Our society still marginalises women who suffer from this condition. Even though we can now treat it very well. We have very high rates of healing compared to the past. We must build on this."

Many of our parents were cast out from their families after the birth of their children. - Allassane (nurse)

Those who make it to one of the few fistula clinics in the country have a good chance of becoming healthy again. The problem is that many women out in the rural areas never have the chance to learn that their condition is curable or they want to keep it a secret because they are ashamed.

It is clear to nurse Allassane that better health care alone can’t solve the problem. "If we want to get rid of the problem, we have to prevent child marriages."

What can be done?

Aid organisations are critical of the government for doing too little to protect girls. Niger has no laws determining a minimum age for marriage. The consequence is that it is tradition rather than the law that decides when girls are old enough to marry - this means their fates lie in the hands of fathers, male relatives, village elders and religious leaders.

School for husbands

It is precisely this that an unusual project run by the NGO SongES focuses on. Twelve men are discussing pregnancy, family planning and child marriage with a SongES employee at the aid organisation premisses.

This also includes the issue of contraception. The enormously high birthrate of more than seven children per woman is an important part of the problem. Maman Abdou is proud to be a pupil of the school for husbands. He and the other men meet here twice a month. They are all recognised figures in their villages - imams, village elders, community leaders. The NGO intentionally invites influential men to attend the school.

The idea is that they disseminate the knowledge they gain from their meetings through their villages and so help to improve the situation for women and girls. According to a SongES aid worker, the concept has been successful. In regions with schools for husbands, more women go to screenings, there are more medically attended births and also more women using contraception, he says. The schools also influence the men’s attitude towards child marriage.

We must prevent these marriages so that our children don’t become pregnant too young. It’s a problem for the whole community, that’s why we must fight together against child marriage. - Maman Abdou (SongES employee)

Still a way to go

Maman Abdou and his fellow pupils want to convince the other fathers in their villages of this too. But the example of Hamsatou shows that this isn’t always easy. Her father knows about the project and thinks it’s good, but not for his daughter.

If you have a daughter, your mind can’t be at rest until you have married her off. Their heads are just too full of nonsense nowadays. - Seydou (Hamsatou's father)

A few weeks ago Hamsatou was still a pupil, now she’s a housewife. Of course, she too has heard that more and more girls are resisting marriage. But the fear of how her parents and relatives will react is too great.

It could have been worse, she says. At least her husband has treated her well so far.