Second to politics, the hot topic in Niger is polygamy.
Many discussions amongst the staff over lunch result in two camps: ‘one wife is enough trouble!’ or ‘trouble is halved with polygamy!’ When I ask whether the first wife has a say, quite simply the answer is no. But it’s ok apparently, because they’ve known since the outset that it’s less ‘til death do us part’ and more ‘wait til another wife comes along.’
It is not limited to social class or a rare occurrence. Polygamous marriages are widespread in Niger, and legal. Islam permits a man to marry up to four wives, as long as he treats them all equally. It is estimated that over one third of Nigerien women are in polygamous unions. The president himself has 2 wives and many children.
Men taking more than one wife in rural areas often give a small plot of land to each wife on which to grow food to support herself and her own children. But when the average woman in Niger has 7 children, there could be over 20 mouths to feed in a family with one man and 3 wives. If the rains don’t come, or locusts ravage the crops, or the family has to sell their land, it’s not surprising that one in two children are malnourished.
It’s not just about children’s rights to survival. It’s about children’s rights. Girls are sometimes promised in marriage from the day they are born, and although civil law states that a girl must be 15 to marry, it’s not uncommon in rural areas for families to enter an agreement whereby a girl as young as 10 joins her husband’s family. Early marriage leads to early pregnancies which are dangerous for both mother- who is still but a child herself- and her child.
In one of the areas where we work in Zinder region, female literacy is as low as 7.7%. I find it hard to accept the tough realities for girls born here. Lack of education has a huge impact on child mortality rates. A child whose mother has no education here is twice as likely to die before the age of five as a child whose mother has secondary education.
Our preventative health work is not just about vaccinations and mosquito nets. Much of it is about working with the community, particularly women of childbearing age, raising awareness about health and hygiene, and spreading the word about contraceptives. We have also trained community health volunteers, providing them with specially designed image boxes which explain family planning options in a simple and easy-to-use way. Not only that, they are empowered to distribute contraceptives to women in their villages, as well as providing advice on ante-natal and post-natal care and the importance of going to health centres to give birth.
It’s amazing to think what an impact family planning and education could have for the 1 in 5 children who currently don’t make it to their fifth birthday.
Women here often simply don’t have a choice about being in a polygamous marriage. But we can give them the choice of giving birth in a health centre, rather than at home with no medical support. We can change the fact that a woman in Niger has a 1 in 7 lifetime risk of maternal death. We can save children’s lives and prevent mothers dying needlessly.