Pioneer for Girls Rights in Niger
Roumanatou is a pioneer in her region, fighting for girls’ right to an education
« I just knew I couldn’t leave my studies, » says Roumanatou. « It was a devastating time for me. »
At 16 years old, Roumanatou was promised in marriage to a much older man. He worked in Niamey as a driver for one of the Ministries.
« He paid a dowry of 50,000 CFA (90USD) to my parents, with the promise that he would come for me soon. »
Until that moment, Roumanatou was an excellent student, one of the highest in her classroom. But upon realising she was to be married, her grades started to drop and she got depressed thinking that she would soon have to leave school and her classmates.
Unmarried girls in Niger are considered to be problematic. First, they cost the home money in food, clothing and education. Second, they are a potential risk for the family if they behave in any way seen as inappropriate, as this can bring shame on the household. In particular, society sees unmarried girls as potentially promiscuous, having children out of wedlock, and becoming a burden on the family because they are unable to marry in the future as a consequence.
« Once a girl is married, it is rare that she can continue her education, » says Salmey. « Because she now has a household to manage, and soon children on the way. »
Early marriage for girls in Niger can happen as young as 13-15 years old, and is nearly as high as 90% in regions of the country like MaradI (89%) and Zinder (87%) and as low as 18% in the urban capital, Niamey. Wealth plays a role, too, as wealthier families might marry their daughters off at 16 or 17, while poorer families will do so at 14 or 15.
« It’s in the culture of Niger – influenced by the religion , » explains Salmey Bebert, a Child Protection Specialist for UNICEF and herself from Niger. « They say it is in the Hadith that said girls can be married as soon as they have their 1st or 2nd menstrual period. And more often than not, it is to a much older man, with one, two or three other wives.”
« My father saw me as an expensive problem. Something else to pay for. And so when I started to refuse to get married, to say I wanted to continue studying, he didn’t support me at all, but rather fought with me about it. Even my mother, she said ‘Good Luck’ but gave no other support than that. I’ve no idea where I got the strength to keep fighting, but I did it. »
Roumanatou didn’t know where to turn first. Despite long-term efforts by UNICEF, there is still no law in Niger forbidding child marriage.
“With strong engagement by the president of the Republic, the Government, with the support of, UNICEF and other partners signed a decree to promote Girls Education and protect them in school. ,” explains Salmey “The decree says that girls must be encouraged to attend school, and that legally they must go until they are 16 years old. The implementation of the decree will contribute toward reducing child marriage.”
Despite hold-ups in having a law passed, there is significant behaviour change happening in the country in the fight against child marriage. In 1998, national prevalence of marriage for girls under 18 was 84%, and for girls under 15 years old it was 47%. In 2012, girls under 18 are married at a prevalence of 76% while girls 15 and under are 24%.
Roumanatou is a pioneer in her region, fighting for girls’ right to an education.
“I went to my family, and only one of my brothers supported me. I then went to the local Military Police and explained the situation. They told me it went beyond them, and that I had to take it to the courts. So I did. And I won.”
The judge ruled in Roumanatou’s favour, but obliged her, personally to repay the dowry and all other expenses her fiancé incurred during their engagement. In the end, the man forgave her, letting her off the hook for her debt.
Salmey sees an opportunity in educating girls that many don’t. Her view incorporates her religion and culture.
“So often people realise school is not what they think, they don’t have to lose their culture, their headscarf, their values and ethics. Roumanatou and myself, we are the proof - you can be a « good woman » and be educated, and make a difference in the community, add something different.”
Salmey herself married in the late 80s at 24 years old – once she finished her Masters in Economics. But it was a different time.
“My father only had one boy and 6 girls. So he saw an opportunity with his girls. I was very excited by school. I wasn’t interested in boys so early, because there was education. My teachers gave me lots of encouragement, books, and then I went to Togo to study economics. Unfortunately, I think many families are scared of educating girls – they’ve heard it’s not good for girls to have too many ideas. It’s about control.”
In June, Roumanatou spoke for the first time about her experience, her continued education and her life now as a teacher, a wife and a mother, to a community just a few kilometres outside of Matameye.
“My dowry was 50,000 CFA (90 USD), but today, my monthly salary is the same as this,” she explains. “Monthly! And with that now I am helping my brothers, and my parents, and my own children.”
“It was exhilarating! I can’t believe how much they listened, how interested and concerned they were,” she says. “Now I want to do this much more often, because I feel passionately about the rights of girls. I’m happy to be a role model.”
With the support of the Government of The Netherlands, UNICEF works across sectors to support strategies that address child marriage, working in the development of laws and policies to strengthen systems which
make enforcing child marriage prohibition more feasible. The organization also works with communities to address the social norms that allow child marriage to perpetuate.