Even in the best of times, one of every three girls in Niger marries before her 15th birthday, but now in a severe drought, parents pushed to the wall by poverty are marrying off their daughters at even younger ages.
Hunger bride numbers increase as drought survival strategy
HAWKANTAKI, Niger // Each day before the reaping, the 11-year-old girl walked between the stunted stalks of millet with a sense of dread.
In a normal year, the green shoots vaulted out of the ground and rose as high as four metres, a wall tall enough to conceal an adult man. This time, they only reached her waist. Even the tallest plant in her family's plot barely grazed her shoulder.
Zali could feel the tug of the invisible thread tying her fate to that of the land. As the world closed in around her, she knew that this time the bad harvest would mean more than just hunger.
In Hawkantaki, it is the rhythm of the land that influences the time of marriage. The size of the harvest determines not only if a father can feed his family, but also if he can afford to keep his daughter under his roof.
Even at the best of times, one out of every three girls in Niger marries before her 15th birthday, a rate of child marriage among the highest in the world, according to Unicef.
Now this custom is being layered on top of a crisis. At times of severe drought, parents pushed to the wall by poverty are marrying their daughters at even younger ages.
A girl married off is one less mouth to feed, and the dowry money she brings in goes to feed others.
"Families are using child marriage, as an alternative, as a survival strategy to the food insecurity," says Djanabou Mahonde, Unicef's chief child protection officer in Niger.
This country of 16 million is so short on food that Save the Children claims it offers fewer children a "minimum acceptable diet" than any other country in the world.
The consequences are dire. A total of 51 per cent of children in Niger are stunted, according to a report published by the aid organisation in July.
In the tiny village of Hawkantaki, nearly every household has lost at least one child to hunger or the illnesses that come from it. Their miniature graves dot the hamlet.
Nana Abdou's 1-year-old brother, who died of hunger last year, is buried in a corner of the animal pen. Soon after his death last year, her family accepted the dowry. Nana, 12, is engaged to be married before the end of the year. "Our problems started a long time ago, but every year it's gotten worse," she says.
The numbers tell the story in Hawkantaki, population about 200.
Last year, before the start of the harvest, there were 10 girls in Hawkantaki between the ages of about 11 and 15. By spring of this year, seven were married, and another two are engaged.
That's a rate of 90 per cent, three times the national average.
None of these girls had "done her laundry" yet, the local euphemism for a woman's menstrual period. And every one says hunger hastened her marriage.
The youngest is Zali, a whisper of a girl, whose waist is so tiny you can almost encircle it with your hands. She has no breasts to speak of. Her voice has not broken.
In a good year, her stepfather's four hectares yielded 150 scoops of millet, the size of soup bowls. At the end of the harvest last year, he counted just 17.
It was the same in all the households. The land had failed all of them, and not a single family in Hawkantaki had anything left over to put in their granary.
"The millet last year only came up to 30 per cent of its normal height. There was only one rain. The second one didn't come," says 50-year-old Dadi Djadi, Zali's stepfather.
"It was a catastrophic harvest."
It was soon after, in the emptiness that followed the harvest, that the visitors started to appear.
The groups of older men, wearing skullcaps and robes down to their ankles, came in groups of threes and fours. They asked to see the fathers of the girls.
The father of one of Zali's friends, Sadiya, was the first to say yes, accepting around US$100 (Dh370) as the dowry. It's half the amount usually offered, but her desperate family accepted. A crippling hand infection meant her mother could no longer work even as a day labourer in other people's fields.
Another girl's father also said yes to the same pitiful amount. Zali's father was offered around $200.
Most of the marriages should be illegal under Niger's law, which states that the minimum age of marriage is 15. The law, however, only applies for civil ceremonies officiated by the state. Marriages in villages are sealed inside mosques and fall under what is called "traditional law".
The parents of the girls say they were "ready" and of "marriageable age". When pushed, some acknowledge they would have liked to wait, and circumstances forced the marriage.
On the day of Zali's wedding this January, she wore a new pagne, a wraparound skirt. It was one of the few items bought for her with the dowry. The other item was a veil, the kind worn by married women. She was now 12 years old.
There was barely any food at the wedding.
Her family borrowed a bullock cart to take her to her husband's home. Her girlfriends piled in with her, laughing. At the door, Zali was lifted onto the back of an old woman who carried her across the threshold, in an ancient marriage tradition.
The mud-walled room had been built by hand by her husband. He is supposed to provide the roof over her head.
The bride in turn is supposed to provide the furnishings, bought with the cash dowry. In the four months since the engagement, however, Zali's family had spent almost all of it on food. All she found in the room was a yellow-and-orange plastic mat, a mosquito net, and a few bowls.
According to the local custom, the bride's friends stay with her for a week. The nine girls sat on the mat on the floor with Zali, singing songs, telling stories and giggling. Each time her husband approached, they shooed him away, clapping their hands and throwing things at him. It was like a game.
And then the week was over, and the 12-year-old girl was suddenly left alone with a 23-year-old man.
When a marriage is consummated, the bride cooks a special meal and returns to her family's home for the first time since the wedding.
Zali fought for a month.
At night, her husband tried to touch her. She pushed him away. It was like this the second night. And the third. Weeks passed.
It was then that her mother-in-law took her aside to dress her down.
That night, Zali lay down on the mat in her unlit hut. He said nothing when he came in. He just opened her legs.
The next day, Zali's mother walked into the barren fields that radiate outward from the village. She found the kalgo tree.
All over Niger when the millet runs out, desperate families are reduced to boiling its leaves for food. Her mother went to collect the leaves for a different reason, because they are also known for their anti-inflammatory properties, and are prescribed for new brides.
Zali's mother boiled them and prepared compresses to soothe her daughter's crotch.
So many mothers went to pick the leaves this spring that hardly any were left on the denuded branches of the tree.