by Pat Landowska
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.
Why is this happening?
For many reasons, among which poverty seems to be the most important one. Parents give a young daughter away so they have fewer mouths to feed and to ensure that she is supported. Sometimes, a bride’s family receives a piece of cattle as a thank-you gift from groom’s family, something that is very desirable in places often swept by droughts and famine. At other times, parents feel that marrying young will shield their daughter from strangers, possible attacks, rape. In places like Niger where life expectancy doesn’t exceed the early fifties, parents marry off children early, hoping to provide them with stability before their own deaths.
What really happens?
When a girl enters a marriage, she will most likely drop out from school. In Niger, only 15% of women are literate. Less than one-third of girls are enrolled in primary schools. Studies have shown that women with seven or more years of education marry later and have fewer children. There is no coincidence between a high illiteracy rate among females and the fertility rate, which in Niger is the highest in the world (7.2 births per woman.) However, school is seen as irrelevant in societies where a girl’s role is restricted to home. Many girls are kept out of classes to do chores such as cooking, tending to animals and fetching water.
Without educated females to serve as role models in a community, benefits of educating girls aren’t readily apparent. As a result, uneducated girls often lack life skills and self-confidence to be economically independent. They become prone to early marriages and exploitation.
What is the health risk?
Early marriage and childbearing pose severe risks for girls who are not yet physically, mentally and emotionally developed. So it does for their children. Niger has the world’s highest infant mortality rate; one in four children doesn’t reach the age of 5. Children have fewer chances to survive when born to mothers who are too young and unprepared for parenthood.
In girls whose pelvis and birth canal are not fully developed, delivery of the baby can be obstructed. Pressure from the infant’s skull during prolonged labor can damage the birth canal, tearing the internal tissue that separates the bladder or bowel from the vagina. This tear, or fistula, causes uncontrollable leakage of urine or feces, sometimes both, unless the injury is surgically corrected. These girls live in shame. The condition keeps them perpetually soiled and they smell. They are usually ostracized by their families and many are abandoned or divorced by their husbands. In Niger, where marriage before the age of 15 is common, fistula counts for nearly two-thirds of divorces.
What does drilling a well have to do with this?
A lot. The necessity of walking long distances to fetch water is one of the reasons why girls drop out of school or don’t attend it at all. If a village receives a well, girls go to school. They are less likely to marry and give birth at a very young age and become prone to medical conditions, like fistula. Moreover, drilling a well is a major step towards breaking a perpetuation of poverty that grows on the grounds of a lack of education and restricted ability to produce an income. When a well is drilled, women no longer have to walk miles every day to get water. Their time is freed up to work productively for their families. In every village where Wells Bring Hope drills a well, micro-loans are given to the women to start small businesses, like raising chickens, goats, making peanut oil and millet cakes. Women become successful entrepreneurs and their earning ability shifts the balance of power within the family and the entire village. They have a greater say in how money is allocated with the focus on providing a better life for their children.