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SOURCE: Business Day Live

Fifteen-year-old Ousseina’s dream of becoming a nurse is already over.

"For me, school’s finished," said the frail teenager who sells eggs by a roadstop in the southern Niger town of Maradi.

She, like so many other girls in this deeply poor west African state bordering the Sahara, has no choice but to wed very early.

"My marriage?" she said, her little body shrouded in a sky-blue veil.

"It will be after the harvest towards the end of November" — seven months before she would have passed her school certificate, the key to further education and, with luck, a nursing career.

The lot of women in Niger is among the worst, if not the worst, in the world thanks largely to a relentless tradition of early marriage, big families and having pregnancies in quick succession — fervently endorsed by the influential Muslim majority.

Even efforts by the United Nations (UN) and rights groups to point out the ravages — notably the damaged bodies of girls not ready to bear babies — have met with fierce resistance.

Some clerics have condemned initiatives to hold off wedlock and promote contraception as "the devil’s work brought by the West".

Last year, several Muslim organisations even threatened to "block the path" of anyone who "tries to challenge marriages celebrated in our towns and villages" that are "considered by feminists as ‘too early’." Even among the general populace reasons abound to ignore the "required" minimum age of 18 before a girl is wed.

School is a frequent excuse — notably if the girl is not doing well in class. "Send your daughter to school and she’s likely to come back with a baby instead of a diploma!" scoffed a Maradi moto-taxi driver named Balla Issa.

Such thinking has stymied education — and chances — for Niger’s women. According to UN figures, only four out of every 10 girls are enrolled in primary school and two out of 10 carry on to middle school. The percentage drops radically for high school — only three out of 100 girls make it that far.

"Girls are married as young as 15 and at times to much older men, against their will," deplored Mintou Moctar, a midwife in Safo, a village south of Maradi.

UN statistics on forced or arranged marriages are alarming: 30% of girls are married before 15 and 75% before 18, according to the Unicef office in the capital Niamey. A separate recent government enquiry found the same results.

Economic reasons are also used to justify the custom in a nation prone to drought, food shortages and malnutrition and where 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, notably in the vast rural zones.

Giving girls in marriage means one less mouth to feed.

"Boys migrate, but girls are more vulnerable and risk getting mixed up in prostitution," argued farmer Malam Ada, who has already married off two of his minor daughters.

In some of the "most scandalous" cases, girls "are promised" in marriage "even when they are still nursing", said an annoyed UN official.

"It’s delusional to treat early marriage as a panacea," argued Mamane Sani, a doctor in Gabou, a town in Maradi, the name of the region as well as its capital, where the problem is particularly acute.

The uterus of young girls "is hardly ready to hold a baby" and pregnancy exposes them to the risk of obstetrical problems, notably fistula and damage to internal organs that leads to constant, debilitating incontinence, he said.

The condition often leaves victims shunned or abandoned. It can lead to infection, even death, and while surgery exists to correct the damage, such an option is rare in poor areas.

According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), 48% of married minors had fistula "before 19 years old".

"And then they’re chased away by their husbands and rejected by their entourage," said Saidou Issoufou, an official in Garin-Kouroum, another town in Maradi.

The premature marriages have contributed to Niger’s remarkably high birth rate which, at 7.6 children per woman, is one of the world’s highest, according to UN figures.

It goes hand in hand with another disturbing statistic — one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates.

UN agencies are the main drivers for change, with some government backing. Films on the risks of underage marriage are shown in villages and Unicef has trained volunteers to bring the message to more remote communities.

Yet a decade of efforts has produced minimal results. Fatima Kako, the head of ONGAFEN, a group that joins 70 nongovernmental organisations and women’s associations in Niger, blames both "the lack of political will" and the "social, cultural and religious shackles" that "keep women passive about their own fate".

"The fight to free women from this straightjacket will continue," she vowed.

"We won’t give up." Today "in Niger, a woman who simply talks on television is considered vulgar and irresponsible," she noted.

But "this is far from discouraging us," she said. "We will carry on the fight... and hope for more noteworthy changes in the coming years."

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