In a nation that has one of the world's fastest-growing populations, the hunger crisis is the latest twist in Niger's efforts to combat early marriages, a battle pitting modern values against centuries-old traditions.
MARADI, Niger — Balki Souley lost her son during childbirth the other day. Her body was so frail, so weakened by a lack of food that she, too, nearly died.
“When I return to my village, I will try to have another child,” she said shyly as she lay on the floor of a crowded maternity ward.
Married at 12, Balki is now 14 years old.
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Niger has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage, with roughly one out of two girls marrying before age 15, some as young as 7. As a hunger crisis affects millions here and across the Sahel region of West Africa, aid workers are concerned that struggling parents might marry off their daughters at even earlier ages for the dowries they fetch — which include animals and cash — to help the families survive.
“The fear is, if the food crisis continues, that more parents will use marriage as a survival strategy and that we’ll see more girls married before the age of 15,” said Djanabou Mahonde, the head of child protection at the United Nations Children’s Fund.
In a landlocked nation that has one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, the hunger crisis is the latest twist in Niger’s efforts to combat early marriages, a battle pitting modern values against centuries-old traditions. Niger’s government has enacted legislation outlawing unions before age 15; in some cases, parents have been arrested and imprisoned. Government social workers and international aid agencies have initiated efforts in remote villages to encourage girls to remain in school.
Yet early marriages remain widely accepted by families across large swaths of the country, fueled largely by high rates of poverty and illiteracy, ancient tribal codes and conservative religious views that wield more influence in rural communities than do government decrees. The average woman here has more than seven children, the highest fertility rate in the world.
Half the population, which is expected to grow from 16 million today to about 59 million in 2050, is younger than 15. As in many parts of the continent, Niger — which has shrinking arable land, low rainfall and low levels of education — will be in perpetual crisis if rapid population growth is not slowed, many experts predict.
At the regional hospital in Maradi, where Balki was recuperating, the director said the number of underweight babies and undernourished mothers was rising. Usually, 5 percent of newborn babies weigh less than 5 pounds. This year, 8 percent do.
“This is related to the food crisis,” said Achirou Oumarou, the director. “People are eating leaves to survive.”
Many babies live only a few weeks, he said, adding that the hospital lacks incubators and other equipment.
Child marriage is a global phenomenon, but it is more prevalent in Africa and southern Asia. In many poor communities, girls are viewed as commodities and used as currency or to settle debts. To protect them in dire economic times, girls are sometimes married into more-affluent families. Notions of morality and family honor also drive early marriages: girls are often married off to ensure their virginity. In some cases, men “reserve” especially young girls, to marry them later, as a way to unite families and communities.
Such marriages often bring severe health consequences. Niger, for example, has high rates of obstetric fistula, a medical condition often seen in girls, that usually develops when an unborn baby gets stuck in the pelvis, cutting off blood circulation and leading to rotting of tissue. If not treated, a woman could leak urine and feces, causing other infections as well as social and psychological trauma.
When Balki was admitted to the hospital, she was suffering from iron-deficiency anemia, a major cause of maternal death, which increases the risk of bleeding and infection during childbirth. She had not eaten properly in six months. Her tiny, fragile body struggled to transfer what little iron she had to her fetus.
In the United States, a doctor would probably prescribe an iron supplement and a diet that included meat and vegetables.
In Niger, Balki had no such options. As per tradition, she spent the last few months of her pregnancy with her parents. With each day, her portions of millet, her only choice of food, became smaller and smaller.
Her father was forced to become a manual laborer. But the most he could scrape together was $1 or $1.50 a day, hardly enough to feed the 15-member family.
“Sometimes we had food, sometimes we didn’t eat,” said Mohammed Souley, Balki’s father. “Whenever we had leftovers, we gave them to Balki. If her hunger wasn’t satisfied, there’s nothing we could do.”
Save the Children recently declared Niger the worst place in the world to be a mother, replacing war-torn Afghanistan. In its report, the agency found that the average girl in Niger receives only four years of education and lives to 56 years. One child in seven dies before his or her 5th birthday, which means that “every mother in Niger is likely to suffer the loss of a child,” the report found.
It is no coincidence, the group said, that seven of the 10 countries at the bottom of its annual list are grappling with a food crisis. Young mothers are trapped in a “vicious cycle” in which they give birth to “underweight babies who have not been adequately nourished in the womb.”
On the day she was to deliver, Balki bled profusely and nearly died. Had her baby survived, he probably would have been severely underweight, his mental and physical growth stunted by malnutrition.
In a culture that values having many children, to help around the house and in the fields, Balki faces immense pressure to have a child. In the ward, relatives explained that she had dropped out of school two years earlier. “If the girl is not going to school, what is she going to do?” said Amina Ado, her grandmother. “She has to get married and give birth.”
A few moments later, her aunt, Saa Rabiou, said: “Some of Balki’s friends, who are her same age, already have two babies.”
“These marriages are hard to stop,” said Saidu Omarou, a child-protection officer. “Parents are now marrying their girls off secretly.”
Ouma Sayadou, 15, fled her village two years ago after her parents betrothed her to a much-older man. She now lives in Maradi with her aunt, a nurse, who also escaped an early marriage. Ouma’s aunt became her guardian and enrolled her in school, hoping the girl would go to college.
But her parents and fiancé have been calling incessantly, sometimes three times a day, urging her to leave her aunt’s house and return home, to give up her education.
They may soon get their wish: Ouma’s aunt, who is 30, is getting married and can no longer take care of her. So next week, Ouma is returning to her village. In an interview, she broke down crying, unable to speak.
“They are going to marry her off, and she can’t refuse.” said Delphine Mensab, an aid worker helping Ouma. “She’ll never go back to school.”