In Niger, educating girls is a cure for a ‘population bomb’ – Liberation

March 22, 2022 Release and the NGO ONE are organizing a special day to challenge presidential candidates about the return of extreme poverty everywhere on the planet and its implications for the major issues that lie ahead of us. On the program: global warming, debt burden, government development assistance, food security… Meeting at the Théâtre du Rondé Point from 9 am. This event will be accompanied by a special 16-page notebook in the March 22 issue of Liberation. to find in this file these articles.

These are the lucky ones: teenagers, girls and boys, happy and exuberant, jostling and teasing each other in the corridors and stairways of the graceful buffy buildings of this boarding school, built in 2019 at the end of a road stretch of sand on the outskirts of Niamey, the capital of Niger. “All these children come from dysfunctional families and come from other regions of the country. In general, their parents were not in schoolthe director says. He is the magistrate who voluntarily runs this private structure that can house one hundred middle and high school students free of charge.thanks to donations and support from partners“, he explains, before suddenly calling Alimat. A tiny, smiling 16-year-old figure draped in bright colors wants to become a doctor. This year she entered the Lycée Français de Niamey, one of the best schools in the capital. Because the boarding school is here mainly designed to accommodate and feed the students, while providing them with the daily support of caregivers.During the day, the children are scattered around the different schools of the city.

This model inspired President Mohamed Bazum, who was elected a year ago and promised to make education a priority. In particular, by building a hundred boarding schools. So far, only one has opened in Zinder in the south of the country. But a dozen will be under construction. Everything is for girls only. Because the goal is not only to strengthen education in a very poor country, still predominantly rural, where almost half of the 22 million inhabitants are under 15 years old. It is also, if not primarily, a matter of encouraging girls to stay in school longer. Hoping to curb explosive demographics. With a record birth rate of over six children per woman, Niger is now the country with the fastest population growth in the world. It is also the African country with the highest rate of early marriage among girls:77% get married before the age of 18, and 28% before the age of 15.”, the President recalled in his inaugural speech on April 2.

School against early marriages

The strategy is simple”, explains Mohamed Zeidan, Secretary General of the Ministry of Education. “The longer girls stay in school, the more likely they are to avoid early marriage. There are a lot of them in elementary school, but then they are quickly eliminated. For parents, it’s a matter of opportunity cost: “What do we gain by keeping our daughter in school?” With these boarding schools, we are solving a persistent problem in the countryside, namely the distance between home and school. And the family will have one less mouth.“, he elaborates. The challenges of other measures, such as the one to improve teacher training, became catastrophic after the budget cuts introduced in the 1980s by structural adjustment programs.

Recruit teachers, train them better, the government has already taken up this. But the numbers involved are still modest: 600,000 children enter primary school each year. First of all, the country has never seemed so fragile. In Niger it is modestly referred to as “a crisis» : Like neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, this Sahelian country is now the target of relentless attacks by armed jihadist groups that have turned large areas of this country, twice the size of France, into no-go zones. Or at least dangerous.

These groups are particularly targeting schools considered emblematic of Western education: 600 have closed and 50,000 children have recently dropped out of school. “This crisis especially affects girls. They are locked at home. And who, under these conditions, will protect them from forced or early marriage?worries Nafissatu Hassane Alfari. At 29, this dynamic woman runs an association in Niamey to promote women’s leadership. Which, in particular, tries to motivate the girls, now isolated in a cell imposed by an unpredictable enemy. “We keep in touch even at a distance, we try to find constructive activities for them outside of school. But we know very well that during a crisis, women’s rights always get worse.“, – she emphasizes. His fight is not always clearly visible: “When you claim to be campaigning for the emancipation of young girls, you are often accused of importing Western culture. You are accused of losing your valuablesNafissatu is recognized.

“Fifteen years ago, women did not wear a veil, now almost all”

Hadiza Maiga heard similar accusations. This businesswoman, fashion designer, offers free training to young girls in trouble. In her sewing shop, dozens of silhouettes, draped in long veils that only show the oval of their faces, leaned over sewing machines. Most of them are young single mothers, rejected by their families.fistula, victims of genital mutilation are still common in Niger. Or even young women from areas affected by jihadist attacks. “They come in shock. They often lose their entire family, sometimes mourn the deprivation of their mother.‘ laments Hadizah, herself a divorced and remarried mother of two. This elegant thirty-year-old woman built her career on her own, constantly facing the reluctance of her family and society. Even today, despite the support of ministers and embassies that provide her with material assistance and numerous orders, she sometimes encounters the conservatism of a society that, although destabilized under the influence of jihadists, has itself gradually become radicalized. “I am often criticized on social media for posting photos where a veil covering my head is considered too light.she sighs.

We did not immediately realize this, but our society was more and more subject to religious dictates, and clothing became one of the criteria for this new conformity. Fifteen years ago, women did not wear a veil. Now almost everyone is like that.“Says Edie Knowhow, author of a tasty novel, a social satire that depicts a man torn between two women, an overly devoted wife and a fickle mistress (1). While all eyes were fascinated by the uncontrolled spread of the terrorist threat, no one saw the rise of the rising influence of Wahhabi fundamentalism, sponsored by the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, which infiltrated society, imposing new rules. “In many villages, these Islamist charities have built a well and especially a mosque, which is often the only solid building in the midst of thatched huts. Now there are 12 private Islamic universities in Niger, all of them connected with foreign foundations.“, emphasizes Professor Moulaye Hassan, an academic who also runs a program to combat radicalization and violent extremism. In addition to the impact on mores, this Islamization of society has not yet called into question the education of girls. But it reinforces certain prejudices. “In a Muslim society like ours, it’s not so easy to wonder how many children a couple should have, it’s a bit of a taboo.”, emphasizes Nafissatou Hassane Alfari, who heads the association of young women leaders. “And in a poor and rural society, the child is primarily considered an asset.she adds.

It’s hard to “be a woman without being a mother”

We say that a woman is a tree, near which her husband rests, to whom she bears fruit.“, Aisha Maki notes in a hoarse voice in her documentary barren tree, released in 2016 to critical acclaim. She evokes there with a certain boldness her status as a married woman, without children, in a society where it is still difficult.”to be a woman without being a motherToday, at the age of 40, this sociologist-turned-filmmaker is shaking Nigerian society. With an impressive talent, she points out the evils and obscurities that undermine her country. , the hero of her latest film (2).

Proud of her Muslim culture, she insists on the distinction between “islam and patriarchy”, emphasizing the weight of cultural restrictions. But above all, she knows how the issue of security is also linked to this demographic bomb. That constantly replenishes the cohorts of excluded, school dropouts, unemployed. “Those who are justly coveted by the siren of evil“, she explains, referring to these unpromising young people who have become easy prey for armed groups or human traffickers. “I was lucky that I had access to education when my parents never went to school.“Aisha, who was born into a polygamous family, is often repetitive. Numerous prizes won by her films made her a star in her country. And how can one not find hope after the screening of his documentary on the Zinder gangs, while watching so many men jostling at the microphone to pay tribute to him?

Niger’s luck may be to have strong women. Like Aisha, Hadizah or Nafissatow, they are role models. The worst is never certain.

(1) King of Idiots, Go Knowhow (Gallimard 2019).
(2) Zinder (2021).

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