It’s not easy being a woman in Niger. The odds are especially high for women to drop out of high school, get married young (17 is the average age), or be displaced due to climate change, insecurity or humanitarian crisis! What happens to women in Niger, though, doesn’t stay in Niger alone. It impacts the whole region and ultimately, the global fight for women’s rights and climate justice.
Together with Sani Ayouba Abdou (Director of Young Volunteers for the Environment in Niger) and Lou Compernolle (Advocacy Program Lead at OASIS), we talk about the solutions that will help women overcome barriers and live secure and healthy lives.
I’d like to start this interview with the two of you walking us through your personal journey of how you became who you are now. Lou, can you tell me how you went from being a Chinese studies student to working in reproductive justice?
Lou: What took me from studying sinology and international law to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is the fact that I was very interested in the rights aspect, having traveled a lot in China and having seen China change tremendously over the course of my studies. My first job here in Belgium was working on an international conference where I was responsible for a workshop on human rights and SRHR. There I met two amazing Belgian frontrunners who worked in this field and they completely changed my outlook on things. That was the first time I thought about women’s rights issues and access. One of the women who presided International Planned Parenthood Federation invited me to work for them after the conference was over. I enthusiastically took on that position and worked during President Bush times on the Global Gag Rule. It was the coincidence of meeting these two women activists that put me on the path and I’ve been obsessed and passionate about the field ever since.
It’s amazing how some people can inspire us, right?
Lou: Absolutely! We’ve stayed in touch. They’ve retired now but they are still my godmothers and I always keep them updated about where I‘m going and what I‘m doing. I’m super grateful to them.
Sani, I also think you had important role models in your life, right? Can you also share with us your story of how you grew up in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Niger’s capital Niamey “Gamkalley“ and later became the director of a youth climate activism network and a frequent representative of Niger in environmental issues abroad?
Sani: I grew up in a slum called Gamkalley. It’s an area at the end of city so it’s not easy because the education system was lacking. We had to go beyond the area to find wood for cooking and to fish in the Niger river. At that time, I realized how the environment was polluted – there was no way to find wood around that area and the river was polluted every year by the manufacturer. When I was in the primary school, I joined a scouting movement and it gave me the opportunity to travel and learn about the world and also to always give back to my community. During camping days, we went to plant trees and that gave me the opportunity to love nature. Later, I started studying public policies and the links between youth leadership, sustainable development and climate change. As a climate change advocate, I also realized that we should address the fact that our population doubles every 25 years.
Hearing your stories, one might think that you two are working on completely different topics – reproductive rights on the one hand and climate resilience and sustainable development on the other. But this is far from true. In fact, Young Volunteers for the Environment and OASIS Sahel are long-term partners. Can you explain how these two fields overlap?
Lou: In the Sahel and even more so in Niger, the population now is about 24 million and it‘s set to increase to about 66 million by 2050. The country is already struggling – many women have to migrate from regions where there is either too much violence or drought. They don’t have access to health services, including family planning. They continue to have children even though they can’t take care of them. At the personal level, it’s a huge tragedy but when you extrapolate that and look at families and communities who are on the move and are suffering everything gets exacerbated by the non-ability to have access to family planning.
And the sadness is a lot of people feel that this is about neocolonialsm and pushing for family planning and not wanting African nations to grow, but this is really about providing choice and access to women who want to have access. We know that in the Sahel one quarter of women want access to family planning but they don’t have it. Even reaching to the women who have the right to control their fertility (to decide if they want children and when they want children) would alleviate a lot of pressure and suffering as a result. The interconnection is at all levels, personal, regional and state.
You’re right, we need to take integrated solutions and not single-sector solutions. While reading up for this interview I learned that in Niger young girls and women have sparse access to family planning, education and gender justice. Precisely speaking, only 16 percent of girls finish high school, girls marry very early (the average age at which women in Niger marry is only 17 years!) and consequently women have on average 7.6 children. Sani, what needs to happen so that women are more empowered?
Sani: The main thing to do is to improve our education system and to develop a program that maintains girls at secondary schools. Because when it comes to secondary schools many girls are at the age to get married and they don’t continue. We have to enforce the law against child marriage and improve education because for me education is the only way that maintains girls long time at school and then when girls have the capacity and opportunity to stay at school and be well-educated they can decide themselves when they want to be married or what kind of activities they want to do. Currently, we’re facing a challenge that more than 60 to 70 percent people in Niger live in rural areas so access to quality education is a problem.
Is the government trying to improve the school system?
Sani: In some rural areas, the government is trying to develop an internal system that allows girls to stay at school in a safe space until the end of the school year. We have eight regions in Niger and four are in security crisis. Several schools have closed down so it‘s not easy for girls to access education. That’s why people oriented the government to this internal program for communities that are displaced. Other nonprofits and UN agencies should help the government to develop another kind of system that will allow the education to continue despite environmental or security reasons.
Besides education, another challenge is to address the unmet need for contraception. Currently, 21 percent of women in Niger have an unmet need for contraception. What does OASIS do to help these women to gain access to contraception?
Lou: We have several programs that either focus on improving access to reproductive health supplies or on registering them so that they are easily accessible. We also have programs that focus on providing education to young girls, which not only includes knowledge about family planning but also soft skills, such as how to discuss family planning with your husband.
Niger is not an island and it is closely related to neigbor countries, directly Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania and what happens in Niger directly affects what’s happening in Burkina and the other countries. We’ve set up a regional network of women activists that are doing high-level advocacy with international platforms (ex. Sahel Alliance and G5 Sahel) to make sure that intersectional issues like climate change, access to girls education and sexual and reproductive health and rights get a higher place on the agenda and get the funding that they need because these are cornerstones of sustainable development but they are not getting the attention that they need.
Speaking of contraceptive care, there are different barriers that make it hard for girls and women to use contraception, including lack of access, experience with side effects, misconceptions about contraceptive effects, religious opposition, partner opposition, stigma, and fatalism. What are the most common reasons that women in Niger don’t use contraception?
Lou: The most common barriers in Niger are lack of access to health facilities, stock-outs of supplies and high cost of contraceptives and transport to get to a place where women can get birth control. Comprehensive sexuality education is also missing from school curricula so a lot of girls don’t have knowledge about contraception. There are also some religious barriers to accessing contraception but when we speak with religious leaders and look at Quran, it‘s very accepting of spacing of children. So, there is also a self-censorship where people say, „Oh, no, we can’t talk about contraception in Niger.“ But actually a lot of the times you can, you just need to phrase things so that they‘re culturally accessible.
Sani, can you also speak to that?
Sani: It’s important to understand that the beliefs of the communities make it difficult sometimes to discuss this issue. The majority of people don’t understand the difference between religious beliefs and traditional way to do things. What we try to do here is to develop an awareness campaign about the importance of girl‘s education, family planning and climate resilience among young people and mobilize them to give necessary information to their peers. We have advocates in all the eight regions in Niger and we also work closely with traditional leaders at the local level who can share the message in their communities.
Do you also work with religious leaders?
Sani: Yes! As for the religion, there are both progressive leaders and conservative leaders. In Niger, we have polygamy and majority of people believe that they have the right to have up to four wives. In the past, we had natural resources that enabled us to have as many children as we wanted but today with the climate change we don’t think families can develop this strategy because the majority of land we have in Niger is degraded. Every year we face a disaster like flooding or drought that pushes communities to leave their village and this displacement creates conflicts so we try to make people understand all these challenges and make the right decision when it comes to deciding about the number of children based on the resources and the capacity they have.
Another activity that we do is to talk to the regional and national policy-makers to include this intersectional model into policies because in the past, they didn’t see the relation. We hope that they can orient more money toward that because the budget for family planning is not enough.
Even though it’s well-known that investments in education and family planning improve food security, gender equality, employment, and security, and make communities more resilient, prosperous, and stable. Still, billions of dollars are pumped into military “solutions” in the Sahel, with little effect. Has OASIS worked with policy-makers and tried to explain them that it might be more effective to invest in family planning rather than arms?
Lou: We’re working with the US National Security Council where we advocated for inserting the girls’ education and family planning into their Sahel policy. We try to show policymakers the linkages between peace, security, climate change, education and access to reproductive health and rights and draw attention to evidence that shows how investing in women and girls tackles the root causes of instability for a fraction of the cost that military interventions take. A hundred million dollars a year would be sufficient to provide family planning access to the entire Sahel. Access to education is a lot more expensive but the return on investment would be huge.
I think that it would also be a good idea to approach philantropists to invest into integrated solutions.
I agree that it would be a fantastic and meaningful investment but unfortunately most philantropists and foundations find this advocacy messy because it doesn’t yield direct results. We can’t say that in a year’s time we have changed this and that. This is a systems’ change and systems change takes long and you need to collaborate with so many different actors. Donors would need to have a long-term vision.
I’m always thinking about how I’m grateful that I could study and have a good healthcare system that allows me to choose from different types of contraception and space my children as I wish. And I’m always asking myself what can people like me do to help young girls and women in Sahel to gain the same rights? Any ideas?
Sani: For me the most important thing is to raise the voices of girls and women who come from Niger and especially those from rural areas and let their voices be heard. Another thing is to help mobilize finances and share best practices from similar countries that face the same challenges.
Lou: A key role that journalists play is highlighting the fact that this is not just about Niger, probably a country that most people never think about, unfortunately, but this is about Sahel, the African continent and this is about the global village also. Because we’re all connected. What is happening in the Sahel also has a huge impact on migration and people dying in the Mediterreanean sea because they are trying to get out of zones that are becoming unliveable. It’s a crucially important story but you have to say in a way that catches people’s attention and makes them realize that how vital it is for the globe. It’s a huge responsibility on your shoulders but absolutely key.
It doesn’t matter whether you are based in Prague, Brussels or Niamey, the fight for reproductive rights of women and girls is a fight that needs to continue everywhere. What we’re seeing now in Europe, in Poland or Hungary where there is an increasingly strict regulation against abortion, in the US access to family planning is under threat. This is a fight that doesn’t need to happen in Niger. This is a global fight for women and girls. So yeah, we’re not there yet.
That was great! Thank you. I truly appreciate the work that you’re doing it and I keep my fingers crossed for you!