Haoua, married to her attacker since she was 16- Niger
«The ordeal suffered by Haoua, who has been married to her attacker since she was 16 »
“My husband beat me every day”, Haoua begins by saying. Despite the painfulness of the story that she unravels, she shows no signs of nervousness – on the contrary, she gives us her best smile when asked to do so by our photographer.
Apart from the smile, the camera also captures nuances such as the dark tones of Haoua’s skin, or the see-through band at the top of her purple khimar. The khimar is an Islamic veil that hangs down to the hips, but allows the face to be seen. A closer look reveals signs of abuse on the right eye.
“I was in really bad shape when he hit me during the pregnancy” she continues. The attack occurred in the fourth month of pregnancy and Haoua has had vision problems since then. The child was born and survived for about a year, but passed away due to the meningitis outbreak that ravaged Niger in early 2015.
Haoua has lived with her attacker since being forced to marry him at the age of 16. In the beginning, they lived in Niamey, the capital of Niger, but the constant episodes of violence made her run away. Her husband bitterly followed her to Namari Goungou, the village in the Sahelian region of Tillabéry where she had taken refuge with her children: two teenage girls and an eleven-year old boy.
In addition to physical marks, the violence she suffered also left psychological scars on Haoua, “Even today, when I see him, I’m afraid”, she says.
The prevalence of such unions – forced and at an early age – is very high in Niger. To be legal, the brides must be at least 15 years old, but many parents begin to marry off their daughters from the age of ten. These types of marriages are accepted in a country that is poor (it appears in last place on the Human Development Index) and polygamous, where men can have up to four wives provided that they take care of all of them.
Ironically, Haoua’s eye injury happened when the man who is responsible for taking care of the home complained because the food wasn’t ready. “I told him that he had left me no food to prepare, so I did not have a meal to offer”, she explains. Following the assault, Haoua was taken by her younger brother to the NGO DIMOL, that supports women who are victims of violence. “I was really hurt. They took care of me. Thanks to them, I got my health back”, she admits. She goes on by saying, “my husband no longer beats me ever since he was given advice by the people from the NGO”.
The conversation takes place in the DIMOL facilities, one of the few places where Haoua feels protected. The president of the NGO, Salamatou Traoré, reveals that most of the victims face, not only the abuse but also the indifference of neighbours and the community. “They do not see certain acts of violence against the health of women and girls as real acts of violence. They consider such practices as traditional and prevailing”, she says.
In Niger, women are much more discriminated against than men, due to religion and ancestral customs that cripple the eradication of violence against women. Some of the most deep-rooted “harmful social practices” are excision, economic and social exclusion, early marriages and pregnancies, and the deprivation of education, but the list also includes practices such as “gavage” (the force-feeding of girls so that they can get married at an earlier age).
“It is important for communities to understand that these are acts of violence, they are not traditional practices that can be trivialized”, Salamatou goes on. Tillabéry is one of the regions that is most affected by this calamity, and, therefore, it is benefiting from initiatives such as the creation of multi-dimensional platforms that support victims, training of professionals in these issues, and different prevention and awareness programmes. When it comes to the community, the involvement of religious leaders has proved extremely rewarding, as Salamatou reveals to us “their involvement has been very important, contributing to an immediate change in behaviour within the communities”. “This strategy has been very rewarding and it was thanks to the French Muskoka Fund that we got the necessary funding”, the President of the NGO DIMOL stresses.
Without the support of this NGO, which took Haoua to a hospital and was responsible for “100% of the treatments”, this mother’s case would have ended tragically. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Haoua takes advantage of our presence to send out a message: “I call out to all women who are victims of violence to seek the support of institutions that protect the rights and interests of women”. About to get back to her household chores, Haoua also asks that all “women and sisters” take their daughters to school. “If you have access to education, you know your rights and you are more prepared to defend your rights”, she finishes.