Seventy-six percent of girls in Niger are married before the age of 18. Only 14 percent are enrolled in secondary school. Together, these two stark statistics shed immense light on the conditions shaping the lives of girls in the nation—and provide a blueprint for how to empower them.
Many factors fuel the persistently high child marriage rates in Niger, including widespread poverty and community norms and tradition. But Daniel Perlman, a research medical anthropologist at University of California in Berkeley, sees the poor quality of education available to girls in rural Niger as one of the most powerful—and most ripe with potential to cause a sea change. “If parents see that their daughters are learning,” Perlman told Ms., “they will leave them in school. Once you go from two girls in a secondary school uniforms to 200, norms change dramatically.”
That kind of dramatic change was the goal of Pathways to Choice, an innovative program focused on delaying the age of marriage that was launched in 2008 by UC Berkeley’s Organizing to Advance Solution in the Sahel (OASIS) Initiative in Nigeria. Now, Perlman and his colleagues are hoping to bring the program to Niger.
The Pathways model is straightforward: young women and girls are provided with a secure space to talk about issues that are important to them, and they are mentored by other girls and women from their communities. Within these spaces, girls meet and learn from other women who have pursued education and established their own careers and have the opportunity to gain critical life skills themselves.
“The safe space has been able to help girls in rural Northern Nigeria to do better in school academically through intensive literacy and numeracy. The have been able to understand their values as girls and they have higher self-esteem,” Habiba Mohammed, the Director of the Centre for Girl-Child Education in Northern Niger, told Ms. “They now have a voice and are able to negotiate with family and friends.”
Pathways also focuses on expanding access to family planning for the girls they serve, amplifying the impact of the empowerment of education by equipping girls to control their reproductive lives. “Reproductive health goes way beyond simple healthcare; it involves women’s empowerment,” Perlman said. “We started the program because we were concerned about maternal mortality and child marriage and it’s evolved to be more about girls gaining the lives that they want.”
The results are more remarkable. OASIS reported that, through their program and its partners in the community, the number of girls in Nigeria graduating from secondary school has increased from 4 percent to 82 percent—and the average marriage age increased from 14.9 to 17.4. Those two-and-a-half years of life experience are imperative to girls’ development, both emotionally and physically, and can allow young women more time to gain a pivotal sense of self.
“What makes the safe space special is that it is a girls-only space where girls are able to learn things that cannot be learned at home or in school through a trained mentor and also through peer learning,” said Mohammed. “The importance is that the girls will look up to them as mentors and can connect with them even outside of safe space. This cascading mentorship will also make way for sustainability of the project.”
The Pathways program in Niger will also build on what OASIS accomplished in Nigeria, giving OASIS an opportunity to strengthen the powerful work they’ve already shown can be successful. “In Nigeria, we quickly found that there isn’t a generic girl,” Perlman said. “If you’re just working with girls in school, you’re not working with the most vulnerable.”
An expanded community focus in Niger’s Pathways model, with the hope of reaching the most vulnerable populations of young women and girls, will amplify the voices of young women in rural areas by opening dialogues in families and with community leaders about the importance of ending child marriage.
“Our vision is we want girls to be free from early marriage and we want women to make choices about the number and timing of their children,” said Alisha Graves, the co-founder of the OASIS Initiative. “The population of Niger is due to triple by the middle of the century. Now is a critical time to equip girls with life skills so there can be a revolution in gender norms.”