Hadiza was walking home from school one day when people started calling out: “The young bride! The young bride!”
The 14-year-old had no idea who they were talking about, and kept on walking. She got back to her house to find her mother crying. When Hadiza asked her sisters why she was so upset, no one answered.
This would be the start of Hadiza’s new life as a child bride.
Every year 12 million girls are married before they turn 18, and the country with the highest prevalence of child brides is Niger. In the west African nation 76 per cent of girls are married by 18, 28 per cent by 15. Girls as young as 10 are married in some regions, and after the age of 25 very few women remain unmarried.
Hadiza – whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity – is from Tillaberi and was forced into marriage as a child, but managed to escape the abusive relationship she found herself in.
It was 2010 when Hadiza came home from school to find out her life was going to change in ways far beyond her control. After being met with silence and confusion on that day nine years ago, her mother eventually explained what was happening.
“My mum told me that my uncle had given me away in marriage without letting her know,” Hadiza says. “She then showed me tins of coke and sweets and said that it was for my wedding’s Fatiha. Then I started to cry too.”
At this time her father was away working in the Ouaga area as a truck driver. Hadiza’s uncle – her father’s younger brother – had arranged the marriage without telling anyone.
He owed money to the father of the man Hadiza was due to marry, but had no way of paying the debt. So he gave away Hadiza’s hand in marriage to settle the score.
As a young girl who loved school, Hadiza knew this marriage would be the end of her education. Looking back on this time, she says: “My childhood was like a broken dream because my dreams never came true.”
She desperately wanted to escape the marriage, so two days after being told the news, Hadiza ran away from her family and hid in the woods. After three days alone, “so exhausted that [she] couldn’t speak”, a local fisherman spotted her and took her back to the city.
Her brother had been searching for her, and on hearing that a girl had been found in the woods went to bring her home.
Hadiza was soon married to the older man who immediately told her she could no longer go to school. The teenager tried hiding again, but soon realised she couldn’t keep running.
“My uncle told my mum, he even called me, and he said that if I refused to accept the marriage, that meant that my mum had pushed me into refusing it so my mum would have to leave the house too.
“My dad wasn’t there and if they had gone after my mum, my sisters’ lives would have been ruined. So that’s why I accepted to stay. I sacrificed myself for the wellbeing of my brothers and sisters.”
Hadiza’s husband took her over a thousand kilometres away from Tillaberi to Agadez, where the relationship would become even more controlling.
“My mum cried for two weeks straight,” Hadiza says. “She even had problems with her eyes as a result.”
Living in this new home in Agadez, her husband began to hit her, and would go long periods of time without feeding her.
Every night after they arrived he would try and have sex with her, and when she refused she would be beaten.
“As soon as your wife is given over to you, the very night that she is given to you, you have to touch her,” Hadiza says. “The day that he took my virginity, a shameful thing to do, he was accompanied by his four friends. His four friends held me down as he took my virginity from me.”
With no friends or family near, Hadiza would regularly sleep in the local station to escape the abuse, and go to neighbour’s houses for food. During this time, she became pregnant – a child that would go on to be stillborn.
Pregnancy and birth is more dangerous for adolescent girls than older women, with complications far more common, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Up to 86 per cent of obstetric fistula cases occur in girls under the age of 18. Access to healthcare is often a huge problem for child brides, and also leads to an increased level of unsafe abortions.
If children do survive, babies born to child brides face greater health risks compared to those with older mothers, with an increased likelihood of low birth weight and poor nutritional status, according to the WHO.
An estimated 2.1 million more children could survive past the age of five over a 15-year period if child marriage was eliminated.
When Hadiza was pregnant for the first time, a woman who lived nearby took her in. Her husband tried to bring her back home, but Hadiza managed to stay with the woman until she gave birth.
After three years of marriage, and having a second child who survived, Hadiza was able to escape her husband and move to Niamey. Rather than moving back in with her mother, she lived with her maternal uncle so her husband would not be able to find her.
“He’s the one that tells me to not go back to Tillaberi because even if I go back, the guy is going to come after me.”
While living with her uncle, Hadiza met a representative from the UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency. She became an ambassador, learnt to read and write, and met a woman through the organisation who helped her go back to school.
“I went back to year 9 and was luckily top of the class. I carried on to year 10 and was top of the class too.” Hadiza went on to not only graduate from high school, but at 23 is now in the final year of a professional diploma in electronics, as well as continuing to work for non-profits helping young women in Niger.
“I will carry on studying in Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco as there are no schools here in Niger where I can study electronics.”
Despite her determination to study, and her previous traumatic marriage, there is still pressure on Hadiza to get remarried.
“Last year, my dad told me that I had to get married. I told him no, that I didn’t need to get married now. I told him that I am going to carry on studying until I finish my studies.”
But it is not just her own education that Hadiza is passionate about.
“I have saved more than five marriage cases here with my colleagues from the think tank Young Girl Leaders,” Hadiza says. After reaching out to girls who are being forced to marry, Hadiza reports the people trying to marry them off to the police. After the union has been stopped, she continues to visit the girls, doing what she can to help them stay in education.
Using this new-found confidence and knowledge, Hadiza even stopped a marriage in her own family. After her niece left school because of her failing grades, Hadiza’s sister decided to arrange a marriage between the girl and a butcher.
“I said to her, you are my own sister, my own flesh and blood, but if you insist on marrying this young girl who doesn’t want to, Wallah, I will send you to prison.
“She knew that I could do it as she knew that I worked for a non-profit. She gave in but we haven’t spoken to each other in two years.”
The young girl now lives with Hadiza’s mother and is back in school – paid for by Hadiza.
Although an ingrained tradition in many societies, the arguments to end child marriage seem irrefutable.
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A 2017 World Bank study suggests that ending child marriage in Niger could save the country more than $25bn (£19bn) by 2030. Worldwide, the cumulative costs of child marriage between 2014 and 2030 are projected to be above $5 trillion.
Child marriage increases fertility rates and population, therefore costs of basic services go up, such as education and health care. Child brides are less likely to complete their education, which leads to inevitable loss of education and therefore earnings.
“I think that we need to raise awareness with the people in power,” Hadiza says. She is emphatic that it is community leaders who will stem change.
“If the chiefs of the village educate our dads on this, then our dads will most definitely agree with our choices. If the village chief doesn’t agree, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Although she managed to not only get an education but also work for NGOs helping young women like her, Hadiza still carries the weight of the last 10 years.
“All my dreams were destroyed ... I have been held back so much. I can see that putting our lives in danger is not good. Stop [child] marriage.”
The interview was conducted in French and translated into English by Joel McConville