by Jessica Wiseman

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.

Centers created to empower women through knowledge of their rights and
access to health care have not been much help. Women in Niger fear that if they
seek out these centers, they will face the stigma of society. They do not seek
help for fear that their safety will be further threatened.

Niger does not record statistics on rape or violence against women. When a
woman goes to a clinic to seek medical help they record her injuries but not the
cause. In many cases, women who go to the police are given no help. Further,
officers may, in fact, subscribe to the idea that the women have been beaten for
a reason, offering no support. Niger is not alone is such treatment of women.
Further problems exist in the marriage and divorce laws. The youngest age a
woman can legally be married is fifteen years of age. It is estimated that 62% of
girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen had the legal status of married,
divorced, or widowed. According to Nigerian laws, both the woman and the man
must give their “free consent.” However, this is often not respected. In rural
regions of Niger, girls between the ages of ten and twelve are often married and
the mother-in-law becomes their new guardian. With polygamy being legal, one
third of marriages in Niger are polygamous.

Only a man can be the head of a household. When a woman’s husband divorces
her or if he dies, she cannot take over her husband’s position. Inheritance is
equal according to Nigerien law yet, according to Islamic Sharia law, a woman
can inherit only half of what a man receives. Ownership laws allow women to
buy, sell, and own property. However, tradition dictates that only the head of the
household can own property and so these laws serve no use.

Other factors prevent women from gaining true financial independence. In Niger,
only 15% of women are literate while 43% of men can read and write. Not being
able to read makes it difficult to understand their rights, sign contracts, or take
other steps toward empowerment. A staggering 81% of men have jobs with legal
pay while only 7% of women can say the same.

If a woman is educated and aware of her rights, then she is able to assert herself and
apply for a loan to start a small business or buy property. But once again, the
weight of custom makes such an endeavor highly unlikely.

While many steps have been taken to liberate the women of Niger, only 13%
have seats in the National Assembly. Greater empowerment of women will come
when equality is not only written, but practiced.