By Bob Coen
MARADI, Niger, 23 December 2010 – Sahira, 15, sits in front of a social worker at the Office of the Promotion of Women and the Protection of Children with a blank stare on her face. She has run away after being forced to marry a man she had never met who is three times her age.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Bob Coen reports on efforts to prevent the forced early marriage of adolescent girls in Niger. Watch in RealPlayer|
Her mother, who opposes the marriage, has brought her to this UNICEF-supported centre, which is part of Niger’s Ministry of Social Welfare. She gently encourages her daughter to answer the social worker’s questions, but the young girl breaks down in tears. She is too traumatized to speak.
Niger has the highest rate of forced and early marriage in the world. One out of two girls here is married before the age of 15.
“A girl who refuses to accept the decision of her parents is considered to be a rebel of society,” explains social worker Maimouna Abdou. “It’s all the pressure of society that makes many of them accept the marriage, even though they do not really consent.”
A few days later, Maimouna Abdou visits Sahira at her mother’s home in an effort to gather enough evidence to have the marriage officially annulled by the courts. The girl finally opens up.
“I didn’t want this man to touch me,” she says, “so he used to insult me and then he would punch me.”
|© UNICEF Video|
|Early marriage, which has long been practiced in Niger, exposes adolescent girls to serious physical and psychological dangers.|
Sahira’s mother suffered a similar fate. “I, too, was forced to marry a man I did not love. For three years, I ran from one village to another to escape, before I was able to obtain a divorce,” she recalls. “When I found out that my daughter did not want this marriage, I had to help stop it.”
Rejected and alone
Sahira’s case is an exception. Most girls who flee forced marriages find themselves rejected by their families and all alone. Many are forced to go into prostitution in order to survive.
“If I do this kind of work now, it’s because my family never tried to understand me,” says Zeinabou, 20, a young women sitting in the courtyard of a dingy nightclub where she plies her trade. At 17, she was forced to marry a man of 65.
“My parents would constantly send me back to my husband after I’d run away from him,” she continues. “I have no choice than to be here.”
Serious health risks
Early marriages expose adolescent girls to other risks, as well. In Niger, half of all adolescent girls have at least one child before the age of 17, and a woman dies every two hours due to complications during childbirth. Early pregnancies in girls whose bodies have not yet fully matured present serious health dangers to both mother and child.
|© UNICEF Video|
|Sahira, 15, ran away after being forced to marry a man three times her age in Niger.|
“When we ask young girls who have been married at an early age to give birth, this entails a lot of damage – both physical and mental,” says Dr. Lucien Djanikbo, an obstetrical specialist at Zinder Central Maternity Hospital.
“It’s an abnormal rupturing between the womb and the vagina, and in some cases the rectum, brought about by a very long and difficult labour,” he adds, describing the debilitating condition known as fistula that afflicts many young mothers. “As a result, these women often lose their babies and at the same time they also lose part of their dignity, because they can no longer control their bladders.”
The UNICEF supported maternity centre in Zinder is one of just two hospitals in Niger that have surgical facilities to repair fistula, and it is packed with women of all ages. Some have been living with the condition for decades.
Signs of change
While eradicating the practice of early and forced marriage will be a long-term effort, there are signs that age-old attitudes are beginning to change.
“Islam is a religion that favours the social well-being of the whole society,” explains Imam Malm Magagi, who is working on this issue with UNICEF in his community.
|© UNICEF Video|
|Women and girls wait for care at the UNICEF-supported maternity centre in Zinder, one of just two hospitals in Niger that have surgical facilities to repair fistula.|
“The Koran does not allow for a girl to be married prematurely if she is not ready to be married,” he notes, “so I do not agree for anyone to marry a girl very early, before she is of age to be wed. Because I promote the well-being of the community, I cannot promote an early marriage that could have negative consequences on the health of the girl.”
‘One step at a time’
After Imam Magagi’s intervention, several forced marriages of underage girls have already been annulled. But working with religious leaders is just one part of UNICEF’s strategy.
“We’re working with Niger’s Parliament to bring about legislative change, lobbying the government to change the minimum age of marriage to 18,” says UNICEF Representative in Niger Guido Cornale. “We’re also engaged in social mobilization with educated women who are in positions of influence. We’re trying to encourage a change of behaviour and engage in a dialogue with those who make decisions, like traditional leaders, to change this kind things one step at a time.”