Fifteen-year-old Hadjo Garbo’s child-like features belie a history more tragic and life-altering than many adults four times her age will have experienced.Two years ago this petite girl, who likes to fiddle with her elaborately braided hair and once dreamed of being a housewife, was married to one of the older men in her village in the Dosso region of southwest Niger. She was just 13 years old.
The marriage was consummated, and by 14 she was pregnant with her first child. But before her 15th birthday she had lost the baby – and her husband.
Hadjo’s anatomy proved unready for the task of delivering a baby and after an excruciating three-day labour, the unborn foetus was cut out of her, stillborn.
The horrific labour left the girl with what gynaecologists call an obstetric fistula, a tearing of the tissue that develops when blood supply to the tissues of the vagina and bladder and/or rectum is cut off during prolonged obstructed labour. The condition mostly affects child victims of underage marriage.
Hadjo was ostracised by her husband and his family, and forced to secrete herself away from the prying eyes and laughter of her former school friends.
In many Western and Muslim countries what happened to Hadjo would be called paedophilia and the male attacker would be arrested and imprisoned.
In Niger that word is only applied to men who have sex with girls outside of marriage, said Idrissa Djibrilla, head of the Niger branch of Defence for Children International (DCI), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
“Here we only talk about paedophilia when sex happens outside marriage,” Djibrilla said.
“If we look at it from the biological, physiological point of view, it’s clear that at nine, 10, 11 or 12 years old a girl simply is not ready for sex and child bearing. That’s the reality, but it is hard to make our communities understand.”
The effects can be long-lasting and extend beyond physical health, human rights workers and psychologists who have studied child brides say.
Forced sexual intercourse, denial of freedom and domestic violence are “frequently” found in child marriages, the long-term effects of which are poorly understood, according to a confidential NGO study shown to IRIN.
Eventually, the girls are likely to be abandoned when their polygamous husbands take another young bride. In Niger, women have little or no rights after a divorce.
Hadjo’s case is not an isolated one in Niger. The problem affects all the regions of the country, Djibrilla said. At least a third of girls are married by the age of 15, and 75 percent before the age of 18, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
In reality, activists say 13 is a common age for marriage, and some girls are married off as young as nine or 10. They will be forced to have sex even before their first period.
Negotiations over the Family Code (Code de la Personne et de la Famille) – a piece of domestic legislation which would have defined the legal relationship between husbands and wives and children and parents, and included a legal minimum age for marriage and sexual intercourse – collapsed in 2006.
According to Alice Kang, a University of Wisconsin researcher who studied the process, the Family Code was “vilified and abandoned” after mainstream Islamist associations lobbied against it.
“Women’s NGOs [in Niger] sometimes compete with each other and therefore do not always get along together… the influence of religious leaders on politics is, more often than not, indirect… and the Family Code was an extremely contentious issue to the point of being a taboo subject in certain circles,” she wrote in a report after conducting research in Niger in 2006.
Diadié Boureima, deputy representative of UNFPA in Niger, said the government is “a bit reticent” about tackling early marriage “because of the religious reaction” and said if things are going to change “the ‘marabout’ (religious leaders) will have to be involved.”
“If there was a law against paedophilia it would be applied here,” said Boureima. “But, instead, Islam has legalised it by saying the Prophet had a nine-year-old wife, even though that marriage was not consummated.”
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UNFPA wants the age of marriage to be changed to 18. It says that would give girls longer in school, give their bodies time to develop, and allow them to reach adulthood. It would also help curb Niger’s runaway demographic growth by reducing a girl’s reproductive lifespan.
Keeping girls in school has wider benefits, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In a 2001 study, the agency found that women with seven or more years of education marry an average of four years later and have 2.2 fewer children than those with no education.
In Niger, only 15 percent of adult women are literate, and less than one-third of girls enrol in primary school.
Compromise with religious leaders needed
There are also economic reasons behind early marriages, Boureima noted. “There is the chance that the girl will go to a better home or just that the marriage will be celebrated with a good party and food,” he said.
University of Wisconsin’s Kang noted in her report that it is not just men who will have to be convinced of the need for change.
“I was… surprised to learn that there were some women who opposed the Family Code and publicly demonstrated against it, and the legal experts with whom I spoke emphasised that I study this,” she noted.
DCI’s Djibrilla – like all the officials IRIN spoke with – insisted nonetheless that reaching a compromise with religious officials is the most important part of ending the practice. “We have advocated that religious officials can perform marriage ceremonies between adults and children, but that people should not consummate the marriage until the child reaches puberty,” he said.
“The real problem is that at the national level the government is afraid to take certain measures,” he added.
Hadjo’s story does at least have a somewhat happy ending. She underwent two operations for the fistula and spent 12 months at a recovery centre in Niamey, and is ready to go home again.
Hadjo’s husband abandoned her. Her father, a peasant farmer, insists that even if he were still around she would not be going back to him.
“No more husband,” the father insisted. “I was ignorant before but now I know what we did was very wrong.”
However, she will not be able to have any more children, a grave condition in a country where women’s fertility is prized. Unlikely to be able to remarry and without having completed her education, her future might yet turn out to be just as difficult as her past.
This is the second story in a three-part series on maternal mortality and child marriage in Niger