Niger has the one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. In some rural areas, girls are still considered to be heir parents’ property. But some girls are fighting back - with desperate measures.
In the deserted, slightly grimy restaurant, Zeinabou Moussa is sitting on a wobbly plastic chair, nervously pulling at her headscarf. Although she is a slight girl, who averts her eyes every time she's asked a question, the 16-year old commands respect and fear in the male translator, sitting besides her. After all, she is Zeinabou, or as many call her now "the penis biter."
Without looking up, Zeinabou reveals why she is known as such. It was because of her desperate plan to fight back, should her newly-wed husband try to rape her. "I thought if I bit him really hard, he would let me go."
Zeinabou was 15 and a student in Yekoua, a small village in southern Niger, when her parents decided to marry her off against her will. She was forced to abruptly end her schooling in order to become her parents’ neighbor’s second wife. Although she didn’t really know anything about sex, Zeinabou said, she did have at least a vague notion of the male anatomy, thanks to several friends.
She had run away no fewer than four times, spent a night hidden away in a derelict house, even escaped to the local capital - only to be beaten by her parents and returned to her husband. And so, when Mustafa Sanoussi, the husband she didn't want, tried to force himself upon her following her last futile escape, she bit his penis, hard. "He fainted," Zeinabou said smiling.
Child Marriages 'are forced marriages'
Zeinabou is one of countless Nigerien children, some as young as ten or eleven, who are taken out of school and married off every year in Niger. The world's least developed country has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. According to figures published by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, 76 percent of all girls under 18 are married in Niger. Child marriages, according to the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, constitute forced marriages and are outlawed.
The consequences of early marriages can be devastating: An end to an education which could offer girls a better chance of escaping poverty and illiteracy, as well health problems, including complications following painful births for which their teenage bodies are not yet ready.
While forced marriages continue in rural areas, things are improving in Nigerien urban centers, says Dodo Ouma Abani. She heads the local branch of a small human rights organization funded by international donors, called SOS Femmes et Enfants Victimes de Violence Familiale.
The organization provides shelter to women in need in Niger's capital Niamey and runs outreach programs in the provinces. Abani and her colleagues have been working hard to change local attitudes and persuade parents that their daughters have a right to a childhood and education. The organization also supports young girls and women filing for a divorce, accompanying them to local judges and traditional leaders.
So far this year, Abani has been able to help annul three cases of forced marriage. Although local judges and traditional tribal leaders are mostly supportive of the move, many women in rural areas are still afraid to speak up against their conservative culture that undermines their rights, said Abani’s colleague Maman Salissou Zakari.
"In those areas, people still believe that their child is their property which they can give away when and to whom they want."
At last, divorce
In urban areas, people have begun to understand that their children have a right to marry whoever they want, Zakari added. "It's a universal right enshrined in international law," said Zakari and yet Zeinabou Moussa had to fight for it so desperately.
After she bit her husband, Zeinabou escaped, once again, to her parents' house. Yet again, her parents beat her for disobeying them. But after long meetings between her husband, her parents and elders, Zeinabou’s husband asked for a divorce.
It was then, Zeinabou said, that she knew it was all over. "I was no longer afraid." Her parents have now grudgingly agreed to let her finish her schooling before they look for another husband. It will take her another four years to finish her education - and then maybe, just maybe, her parents will let Zeinabou choose her own partner. "I want to marry someone who respects me and looks after me properly," she said.