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Niger: the hardest job you can imagine

Being a mother in Niger is one of the hardest jobs you can imagine. In fact, Save the Children’s own “State of the World’s Mothers” reports have found, time and time again, Niger ranks at the bottom, as one of the worst places to be a mother.

The average woman in Niger will have 7 children in her lifetime. Many women are also part of polygamous families, sharing their husband with other wives. Mothers traditionally have fewer rights over their children than fathers do irrespective of the laws in place to protect women’s rights. Convention can and does defer to a father’s family over a mother. Overall in the country, only about 20% of the population can read. Broken down by gender, 42% of men can read, while only 15% of women can.

Early marriage, even as young as age 14, is not unheard of. Families play a strong role in ensuring that their children are married at culturally acceptable times to good families. Economic constraints and hard times can lead to a sped-up marriage process, at times forcing girls into marriages they’re not ready for. The cultural standard of a Nigerien bride is a young woman sitting on her parents’ bed, wrapped from head to toe, weeping. Once a female is married, she is no longer considered a child, no matter what age she is.

Not many women give birth in health clinics or hospitals, but if you’ve ever seen these clinics here you would understand why. Even coming from a culture that inundates you with the universal truth that “you should go to the doctor, just to be safe” for anything under the sun, it’s easy to see why women would prefer to suffer in the comfort of their own homes.

In rural Niger the closest clinics, which can still be a day or two’s walk away, may only have one staff member skilled in attending a birth. Maternity “wards”—if we can even call a single room off to the side a “ward”— might only contain a single bed that has seen better days. Culture dictates that you cannot scream or show your pain; the idea of pain medication is a luxurious, laughable dream. Let’s not even talk about such crazy ideas as “bedside manner” or “customer service.” Just consider it non-existent.

This year, the stories we collected about families suffering from the food crisis only made these problems more apparent. I’ve read countless case studies of mothers who have brought their children to the intensive nutritional stabilization unit. The stories they tell are never only about the one child admitted – they are about their other children who have died, their struggles to manage seemingly mysterious health problems, the pressures they face within their communities to treat their children’s illnesses through sometimes dangerous and often ineffective traditional practices.

We need to do more for mums

They are about women who are grateful to have a clear answer for why their baby won’t eat anymore, who are excited to see them smile again. Having this knowledge makes me more respectful of the silent calm on women’s faces, but increasingly angry as the only word I can find that fits is “appalling.” My half-hearted attempts to broach the subject with people who tell me these tales are usually met with a shrug and a “c’est comme ca” [it’s like that].

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Improving the lives of mothers is a key gateway to improving the lives of children. When moms eat well, babies are healthier. Safe birthing conditions improve a baby’s chances of survival during those first vulnerable days of life. Family planning and proper birth spacing improves the health of all of her children. Educated mums are better able to identify their children’s health problems and know more about what services are available to treat them.

We need to do more for mums, so that every child, present and future, has a chance.

Find out more about Niger’s food crisis

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