Women living in Niger, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world,
are busy fighting to survive. The goal of women’s empowerment and equal rights
often seems unreachable when the odds are so heavily stacked against them. In
Niger, it is not uncommon for women to be beaten and raped by their husbands,
fathers, and brothers, but sadly, women see this as a normal part of their lives.
While the laws of the state reprimand violence against women, it is the practice
of such behavior that sets the law of the land. A woman typically cannot even tell
her own mother about such mistreatment.
Development projects that bring clean and accessible drinking water to sub-Saharan African communities bring empowerment to women at both local and regional levels. Girls who might otherwise spend up to four hours a day walking to fetch water are free to spend that time in school. Women are suddenly granted more time to pursue income-generating activities, and more flexibility to apply for microcredit loans. These improvements are critical steps toward empowering women, promoting gender equality and increasing female self-sufficiency, which contribute to the overall social and economic stability of developing nations.
Niger is the second-worst place to be a mother – ahead of only Afghanistan – according to Save the Children’s annual State of the World’s Mothers report. The organization compares living conditions of mothers and children in 164 countries. Norway, Australia and New Zealand top the ranking this year as best countries for being a mother. Among the 10 bottom-ranked countries, eight are from Sub-Saharan Africa with Niger ranking the lowest in the region. Sub-Saharan Africa also accounts for 18 of the 20 lowest-ranking countries.
Excerpts from remarks by Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
June 13, 2011
Around the world, women and girls in developing countries walk an average of 6 kilometers a day (3.75 miles) carrying 20 liters (or 42 pounds) of water—often in isolated, unsafe areas, putting them in harm’s way. In some areas, the journey takes more than 15 hours a week, making it difficult for girls to go to school. Less education means fewer economic opportunities for women, which in turn hurts the local economy. And thus the cycle continues.
UCLA’s African Activist Association held a conference on May 21st, “Women Agency in Africa: Role, Motivation & Voice.” As a speaker, I was happy to have the opportunity to let African activists know about the dramatic impact of drilling a clean water well has on improving the lives of women. Not many people make that connection. We tend to assume that providing a well helps everyone in a community, and while it does, the positive impact on the lives of women and girls is so much more dramatic.
What is the easiest way to transform the lives of women and girls in West Africa? Drill a well and give them safe water. Giving a rural village safe water as our non-profit, Wells Bring Hope does in West Africa, accomplishes more than saving lives from contaminated water. Drilling a well transforms the lives of women and girls for generations to come. When women no longer have to walk many miles every day to get water, their time is freed up to work more productively.
Somewhere in a village in Niger, Amina is giving birth to a boy whose father already abandoned the family. The girl got married at the age of 12, now she suffers chest pains that prevent her from eating and sleeping. If it was not for World Vision’s workers coming to her village, there would have been no one to take care of her baby.
Abandonment and depression are only two of many negative aspects likely to develop when girls get married too young, in fact when they are still children. This phenomenon, however strange to Westerners, is common in many developing countries. Fifty-one million girls in the developing world have been married before legal adulthood. Over one-third girls in Niger marry before the age of 15, according to World Vision’s report “Before She’s Ready.” Three out of four brides in Niger are younger than 18. Only Bangladesh notes more under age marriages; in over half of them, brides are under 15.
I was born in the United States but left with my family for Nigeria, the country of my parents, at the age of four. I lived in Nigeria for 13 ½ years, in a place that one would call a remote primitive village turning into a city. Its residents were comprised of people who lived from hand-to-mouth and suffered greatly from a lack of any significant infrastructural development. Everyday, I had to wake up extremely early to look for water and walk miles upon miles to find it.
Many people don’t realize that water in the developing world is a women’s issue. Why do I mean by that? Women and girls are responsible for getting water for their families. They spend much of their waking hours walking miles to get water–water that can be deadly. Young women who have heard me talk about life in Niger say, “Why do they accept that?” “Why don’t they make the men do more?” These are questions that are not surprising, coming from activist, equal rights women who see injustice and want to right it. They find it hard to accept the fact that this is the tradition of these Muslim women, generations of women who don’t question their roles.