By Nathalie Prévost
For Malian refugee girls in northern Niger, early marriage poses risks for girls’ health and for their education. But a new movement is helping them stay out of marriage and stay in school.
INTIKANE, Niger, 1 July 2014 – Aïchatou Mohamed attends primary school in Intikane, in northern Niger, where more than 10,000 refugees from Mali are living. Aichatou likes school and is always on time. Ranked third in her class, she was elected by her schoolmates to represent the pupils at the school management committee, alongside the parents and the administration.
width=430 alt=image>Nearly one in three girls in Niger is married before age 15.
Aichatou comes from a large family, like many among the nomadic Tuareg people who live in the region. Her father is an imam and her mother is a housewife.
“I’m concentrating on my exams first. I know that if I can get a diploma, I can do the job that I choose,” she says. “Really, I’m thinking very much about Mali. If peace comes back, even tonight, we’ll go back right away, because our life was better there.”
Four of Aichatou’s schoolmates are already married. One was married some time ago, and one followed her husband to Libya, but the other two girls were married inside the camp and still attend school.
In Niger, nearly one in every three girls is married before age 15. The practice leads to a high risk of infant and maternal mortality. Nearly all girls who marry early will drop out of school.
“Of course, some parents are doing their best to educate their children. But there are also some girls who don’t think about going to school,” Aichatou says.
“For a girl who wants to stay in school, if she is promised in marriage, she will confide in teachers, to get help and escape the marriage. On the contrary, the girl who wants to marry will hide her plans from the teachers.”
In Intikane and across Niger, UNICEF and its partners are trying to convince parents to keep their children in school, and to let girls continue their schooling even if they do enter marriage.
“As soon as we get the information, we get in touch with the community organizations so that they can play their part,” says Ousmane Oumarou of the NGO International Rescue Committee. “They inform people, meet people, and mediate between the school and the parents. And then, they come back to us.”
The first two marriages of children living in Intikane occurred during the school break. But quickly a response took place.
“Even if we couldn’t stop the marriage, we meet the parents and push them to leave their daughters at school,” Mr. Oumarou says. “It’s working, for the moment – at least parents gave us their consent and children continue to attend school.”
Awareness-raising sessions on children’s marriage are organized for the refugees. Aïchatou’s uncle is on the girls’ side. “Early marriage is a handicap in girls’ life, physically and morally,” he says.
“I’m confident,” Aichatou says. “God will help me to carry on school. I love school and I don’t want to drop it.”
With the support of her uncle, the school and local authorities, Aichatou will be able to continue her studies. Like her, other young girls will have a chance to succeed at school and put off marriage, thanks to an unprecedented movement in their community.