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At a glance: Niger

Habiba’s story: Early marriage leads to tragedy for a young woman in Niger

© UNICEF video
Habiba, 17, who lives in a small village in southern Niger, was married when she was barely 14 and today lives in social isolation with fistula.

By Sabine Dolan

MARADI, Niger, 29 May 2007 – Habiba, now 17, lives in a small village in southern Niger’s Tibiri region. Married three years ago, she has since endured a tragedy that illustrates some of the worst perils of early marriage.

“I was given in marriage when I turned 14,” says Habiba. “At that time I was healthy. I became pregnant one year after the marriage. I was in labour for two days and was transferred to a regional hospital where I had a caesarean. That’s when I suffered a fistula.”

A botched caesarean ripped her small uterus, allowing leakage of urine and faeces into the vagina – a condition known as fistula. Habiba’s fistula left her with chronic incontinence and pain. She lost her baby hours after he was born.

But Habiba’s ordeal didn’t stop here. After the disastrous delivery, her husband left her and the village rejected her. Today she lives alone with her mother. Ostracized and humiliated, she no longer ventures outside her house, not even to get water.

Highest incidence of early marriage

Habiba’s mother, Zeinabou Mahaman, 45, explains that her daughter sometimes wakes up from the pain in the middle of the night. She says Habiba has to spend a lot of time washing herself to soothe the pain, cool her off from the intense heat and  make sure she doesn’t smell.

This fate is not unusual in Niger, which has the world’s highest incidence of early marriage and where, on average, women bear seven children each. By 15, half of all girls are married, and most begin having children within two years.

© UNICEF video
Soueba, 14, was promised to a prospective husband but her father delayed the wedding after attending a village awareness campaign about the dangers of early marriage.

Unfortunately, young women who become pregnant this early are especially at risk of fistula.

UNICEF has been working with the Government of Niger, as well as influential traditional chiefs and religious leaders, to raise the minimum marriage age for girls to 18 and to support their access to health care and education. This latter point is critical because early marriage is one of the main obstacles to a girl’s education. Once married, most girls drop out of school.

Village awareness campaign

Just a few houses away from Habiba lives Soueba, 14.

Soueba was promised into marriage but, her mother explains, the girl’s father delayed the wedding after attending a village awareness campaign about the dangers of early marriage and then hearing about Habiba’s fistula.

Hadiza Saidou, 47, Soueba’s mother, married young and gave birth to seven children. She says she was always against her daughter’s early marriage.

“I strongly opposed it,” she explains. “One of my own sisters became handicapped for life soon after her wedding as a result of a difficult pregnancy at a young age.”

Soueba says she was relieved when her father finally changed his mind. “I’m really happy and moved to have escaped from my marriage. My neighbour’s situation and the horrible consequences of her wedding speak for themselves. God saved me!”

‘My dream is to be cured’

For her part, Habiba dreams of resuming a normal life.

“My dream is to heal,” she says. “I no longer have any contacts with anybody because they show their disgust with my smell. That’s why my dream is to be cured.”

UNICEF and its partners – including the non-governmental organization Solidarité and the United Nations Population Fund – support surgical interventions for girls like Habiba, while UNICEF also helps them reintegrate into their communities.

For now, her mother prays for Habiba, who is scheduled to have restorative surgery in the coming months.




May 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Sabine Dolan reports on Habiba, who lives in social isolation with fistula after giving birth at 14 in Niger.
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