Nigerien Girls Find Place to Discuss Marriage, Health, Nutrition

Young girls convene for a “safe spaces” discussion
Young girls convene for a “safe spaces” discussion.
Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Adolescents gain practical knowledge in “safe spaces”
“I've always said that if I had my choice, I'd be in school, not a housewife, and this has attracted much attention of many girls.”

Oct. 2014—In Niger, it is common for girls to get married as young as 14 years old and miss out on the opportunity to attend school and learn essential life skills. They grow up lacking knowledge of proper health, nutrition and pregnancy practices, leading to high rates of chronic malnutrition and related pregnancy complications affecting them and their future offspring.

That is beginning to change for girls in the Maradi and Zinder regions. Over 2,400 adolescent girls are learning proper health and nutrition practices through a unique activity called “safe spaces,” introduced by Mercy Corps. In safe spaces, adolescent girls meet regularly to discuss early marriage, nutrition and livelihood practices, and reproductive health, and are taught by female mentors selected by their communities as positive role models.

Baaratou*, 20 years old, is one female mentor who was chosen by her community in April 2013 to lead a safe spaces group. “I've always said that if I had my choice, I'd be in school, not a housewife, and this has attracted much attention of many girls,” she said.

Mentors like Baaratou learn to create a safe and supportive environment for girls to discuss sensitive issues such as early marriage and pregnancy as well as to promote teamwork and improved confidence in speaking to groups. By focusing on adolescent girls, safe spaces educate girls on important issues at a crucial time before many of them become mothers.

Baaratou shared her own experiences with pregnancy in her safe spaces group and is confident she has fostered awareness among her girls. “I suffered a lot during my first pregnancy and delivery at 16 and the second two years later,” she said. “I assure you, many girls are aware and do not hesitate to refuse a marriage at 14 years, 15 years and even 16 years.”

Safe spaces is part of a larger food security project implemented by USAID and Mercy Corps that tackles chronic malnutrition and improves the livelihoods of over 106,000 beneficiaries. 

“The activity takes a unique approach by combining health capacity building, behavior change messaging and food assistance to improve health and nutrition among girls,” explains USAID’s Food for Peace Officer Ahmadou N’Diade.

Hannatou Sani is one 14-year old who refused her family’s request to get married last year. “There are many consequences associated with getting married early,” she said. With Baaratou’s help in discussing the issue with her parents, Hannatou now can wait another year until getting married.

To complement safe spaces, the project also convenes young men through “husband schools” to openly discuss family planning and the need to delay marriage. While many serious cultural and institutional challenges still exist, Mercy Corps is working with influential local and religious leaders to gain support for safe space activities and create an enabling environment for behavioral change.

Since the initiative began in early 2013, over 2,400 girls have participated in safe space groups across 56 different communities in the Maradi and Zinder regions. Due to its popularity among girls, Mercy Corps plans to expand and build upon the activity, adding lessons on literacy and money management and a savings and lending component. One group at a time, safe spaces is improving educational prospects and livelihoods among girls by helping them gain the confidence to advocate for themselves and work toward a more positive future. 

This five-year, $24 million food assistance project funded by USAID aims to reduce chronic malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women and children under 5 and increase households’ access to food. 

*Full name not available.

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