In Niger, 76 percent of girls are married by their 18th birthday. Mercy Corps is empowering girls like Dahara to change the narrative through safe spaces in their villages. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
When Dahara speaks, she speaks with a purpose: confident, eloquent hopes about her future and the things she wants out of life. She is young and driven, ready to claim her place in the world.
But not long ago, Dahara did something that put her entire future in jeopardy.
She turned 14.
Dahara lives in a small village in rural Niger. By almost any measure, it is one of the worst places in the world she could be an adolescent girl. In the 2014 United Nations Human Development Index, a list that measures basic human benchmarks like health, education and standard of living, Niger ranked last in the world.
To consider the weight of what Dahara is up against, imagine a group of 100 girls from Niger. Only 15 of them can read. Fewer than 10 of them have learned about HIV and AIDS. About half of them will have a baby before they are 18, and two-thirds of them will do it without a skilled attendant in the room. Four of them will die in childbirth.
And the majority of them will be married. Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, in part because of its widespread poverty. Three out of every four girls in Niger are married by their 18th birthday, many of them years earlier.
For parents with large families, marrying their children off young brings the hope of prosperity and a higher social status. But the reality for girls like Dahara is often a life of hard work and childbearing that begins far too early.
The freedom of childhood is replaced by a life of labor. The opportunity for education is gone for the burden of caring for a family.
Dahara wants more: a chance to finish school, a few more years to grow up with the girls around her. But the math is against her. Next year, she will turn 15 — the legal marrying age in Niger.
A safe space for girls
Child marriage, like most social issues in Niger, disproportionately impacts girls. While 60 percent of all adolescent girls in Niger are married, the number shrinks to only 3 percent for adolescent males. It sets off a chain reaction of inequality: Girls go to school fewer years than boys, are less likely to be able to read, and earn far less over their lifetimes.
It’s not only an issue of opportunity, but subordination: According to the 2016 UNICEF State of the World’s Children report, 27 percent of men in Niger said they felt justified in using violence against their wives for reasons like burning their food or neglecting their children. Women were more than twice as likely to agree.
“Girls are considered the weak sex, and men are considered the strong sex,” Dahara says. She is standing outside her home on a blistering Tuesday afternoon, discussing why she has decided to try to change the narrative.
Dahara is a member of one of three safe space groups for girls in her village, a place Mercy Corps provides where adolescent girls can be together to learn job skills, reading and writing, and hygiene and nutrition training.
The groups provide a protected place for girls to be together, but they also offer them something that’s hard to find anywhere else: a sense of empowerment. In these meetings, girls are shown that it’s possible for them to build a life for themselves.
They are encouraged to stay in school, to discover their own talents and abilities, and to not feel like they have to rush into marriage and start having children.
Since safe spaces started in this village, no girls have gotten engaged to be married before 18. "The girls are very happy. Even their parents are very happy about what we’re doing," Hadiza says.
“When a girl is married early and when she is pregnant, there is a consequence,” Dahara says. “The mother can die, or the baby can die.”
There is a good chance she has seen it happen: Girls in this village have died in childbirth before. Others have lived, but lost their infants.
At a safe space meeting earlier today, Dahara listened as her mentor, Hadiza, shared these important health-related reasons why girls shouldn’t get married so young. But she also heard something more powerful.
She heard another woman tell her it was OK for her to be herself.
“A man can have a farm, a car, a bicycle,” Hadiza told the girls, gathered together beneath a tree. “But you? You have to try and earn your own money. This is why you have to manage to find something to do. Don’t always depend on men.”
Creating her own opportunity
In a shady corner of her yard, Dahara kneels next to an iron kettle. Inside it, water and groundnuts boil over an open flame. As the August breeze moves in, the thick smell of smoke gives way to the floating aroma of sugar.
In an hour, the nuts will be a caramelized golden brown. Dahara will cool them, bag them, pack them, and then walk alone across her village into a crowd of men, where she will sell each bag for 25 Central African Francs — about 5 cents — and return with an empty bucket and a tired smile.
The money, like the business, is all hers. When the girls in Dahara’s safe space group were told to choose a skill, Dahara decided that she wanted to learn to start a business. She buys her supplies, does the labor, and manages the money, fitting it all around her schoolwork and housework.
Business these days is booming: she sells out in minutes.
“I feel very happy,” she says, “because I was trained to do an activity, and now I perform the activity and it works. I get money, and I feel happy.”
The money Dahara earns doesn’t just impact her. Because she’s able to save it, she can use it for things her mother no longer has to buy. Last year, Dahara was able to use savings from her business to buy her own new dress for a village feast.
That’s money her mother can now use to buy food, clothes and household items for Dahara’s seven brothers and sisters. This extra bit of help is critical during Niger’s lean season, when food is not yet ready to harvest and it can be hard to find enough to eat.
With every plastic bag of caramelized nuts, Dahara helps spark a new chain reaction: By deciding to take control of her future, she eased the burden on her family.
“My mother feels happy because she doesn’t have to buy me clothes,” she says. “I buy my clothes with my own money. This is something that has helped our life.”
Dahara is just one of many girls in this village who are learning to invest in their own futures. Saade, another girl in Dahara’s group, has been a member for two years.
“Boys can go out of the village and look for money and whatever they want to do,” she says. “But girls have to stay at home.”
In the safe space group, Saade learned about the risks of early marriage, the importance of staying in school, and ways she can keep herself and her future kids healthy. Now she has a new goal: to keep the cycle going by becoming a health worker or a teacher.
“If I become a teacher,” Saade says, “then I could teach my sisters and my brothers to break the barrier of illiteracy and ignorance.”
‘The will to learn’
It’s easy to see how the group has affected the lives of individual girls. But the impact can also be seen on the community: Since the group started, it is now against village rules to take a fiancée younger than 18. No girls here have registered to get married early.
That’s a huge difference, Hadiza says, and it’s happened in part because her mentorship focuses on the outside forces that influence the girls — including, if necessary, their parents.
“If we hear about a girl who is getting married earlier, we go to the parents and talk to them and tell [them] to wait two or three years more before she gets married,” Hadiza says. “They do not refuse. They accept.”
“We want our village to develop,” she says. “We want our village to have prosperity. All these young girls have the will to learn what I am teaching them.”
Hadiza smiles as she looks on inside Dahara's yard. Almost as quickly as Dahara opens for business, it’s over for the day. But there is still work to be done: millet to wash and pound, farm work to finish, siblings to care for. It will always be a life of work, but thanks to the support she’s found through Mercy Corps, it’s a life of her work.
With a sense of purpose comes the confidence to answer life’s big questions. And there’s one in particular that no longer weighs on her mind.
What would she say if a man asked her to marry him?
Dahara answers without a beat. “I would not accept,” she says.
How you can help
Ziad owned a restaurant and a market in Syria, but was forced to leave it behind when the war started and he was kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed back to his family. He and his family left for Lebanon, where they seek an education for refugee children despite hunger, poverty and discrimination. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps.
The heat is stifling between the plastic walls of the room where Ziad stands. A rotating fan provides little relief from the hot, dry air.
A half circle of children is seated before him, each waiting cross-legged on the thin rugs that cover the concrete floor, with a blue notebook and a pencil placed neatly on their lap.
One plant, the fan, a couple of teddy bears and a whiteboard procured especially for these lessons decorate the small, modest room.
Paying no mind to the warmth, when Ziad asks a question, a cluster of small, eager hands shoot into the air. Class is in session today — and the children are hungry to participate.
There is just one thing: Ziad isn’t a teacher. This isn’t even a school.
This class is taking place in the main room of Ziad’s tent in an informal settlement in eastern Lebanon, where a couple hundred Syrian refugee families are trying to eek out a living in a setting ripe with hunger, poverty and discrimination.
As refugees, Ziad’s kids don’t have access to formal schooling. And, of all the challenges Ziad’s family is facing, this is the one he is most dogged to overcome.
“I just want one thing in this world,” he says, looking at his 7-year-old son, Simon, “only one thing. I don’t want anything else. That you and your siblings go to school and graduate and have a better life.”
Refugees face steep challenges in Lebanon
Over a million Syrians have flooded Lebanon since the start of the crisis in Syria, taking shelter in cities, neglected buildings and informal settlements, wherever they can find cover of some sort to protect them.
The settlement where Ziad lives lies at the end of a long, dusty, dirt road in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the country’s agricultural epicenter.
Here, surrounded by farmland, hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing war have occupied a compound of small, abandoned cinder block buildings. A tangle of makeshift tents like Ziad’s — concrete pads with tarps and blankets for walls — fill the spaces in between, housing the overflow of families seeking refuge.
Mercy Corps provides water and sanitation support, and is helping make rudimentary shelters safer and more livable. But, still, life here is difficult: hunger, unemployment and stress are constants for nearly everyone.
Only around half of primary school-age Syrian children in Lebanon are enrolled in formal education. And, in the Bekaa Valley, attendance is even lower: 36 percent.
Despite the government’s efforts to include Syrian youth in the public education system, obstacles like transportation fees, safety concerns, language barriers and discrimination keep many children from enrolling.
Living in poverty, and without access to school or other safe spaces to grow and develop, countless young refugees are fated to sit idle in their shelters or work to support their families.
Too often, there simply isn’t anything else for them to do.
Why education is critical for refugee children
But as his settlement’s “shaweesh” (its informal leader), Ziad feels a great responsibility to care for the men, women and children living here. It’s the Syrian way, he says.
And so, when the public school his bright and curious son Simon was attending in Lebanon ran out of space for him last year, Ziad didn’t waver. He decided to teach lessons himself.
And not just for his son, but for all the children in his settlement who were missing out on their education.
“The first thing I taught them was the alphabet, how to read, and how to write,” Ziad says. “Something very, very important so their generation is not completely lost.”
“I also teach them the seasons, all the basic things. And I try my best to revive their memories of what they have learned in Syria, so they don’t forget.”
In an environment without structure and opportunity, the school sessions Ziad hosts in his tent provide a small amount of hope and security.
Only half of young refugees attend primary school around the world. Only 25 percent are enrolled in secondary school. And a dismal 1 percent have access to education beyond that.
But, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), education during displacement is vital. It can promote social cohesion, support emotional healing, offer safety and prepare young people to rebuild their communities and pursue productive lives.
It can also foster peace: The Global Partnership for Education states the risk of a young person engaging in violent conflict is reduced by 20 percent for every year of education attained.
Ziad sees first-hand what is at stake and is desperate to instill in his children a different destiny.
“If they live in this depression, this darkness, this will reflect when they’re adults,” he says. “Right now, we are in a state of war. They might hear things, they might see things that would affect them negatively. They might become violent when they grow up.”
“So in giving them this hope, in telling them that life has its ups and downs … it’s going to give them an effort so they can do something in their future.”
Breeding hope, one lesson at a time
Since starting his school, Ziad can’t walk through the slapdash streets of the settlement without collecting a pack of kids, blue notebooks in hand and ready to learn, on his way.
He has somehow managed to secure markers, pens and other basic supplies, and hosts class twice a week from the main room of his tent.
Traditional lessons range from Arabic and arithmetic, to the seasons, the nutritional value of oranges and the difference between a river and the sea.
“I don’t really have a curriculum, but I try my best to keep them learning, to keep teaching them something, so they are always learning something,” Ziad says.
For his students, he has become an anchor in an otherwise volatile existence, and the close attention he gives to them is just as valuable as the academic lessons he offers.
By encouraging the children to draw, Ziad is able to find out what they’re thinking about and how they’re feeling, making it a point to engage those who are reliving traumatic memories.
“I have children who draw their houses in war situations, like war planes and people dying,” he says. "[The drawings] help me understand the person I am dealing with.”
If today is a bad day, he tells the kids, tomorrow will be better. Some days you will be happy, like when you go to a wedding, and some days you will be sad, like when you go to a funeral. You just have to trust that you will be OK in the end.
“The importance is not just teaching subjects, but teaching hope,” he says. “If you don’t give children hope, it’s the same as losing a whole generation, because this is all they have. The future is all they have.”
How we help send refugee kids to class
Mercy Corps strives to ensure young refugees don’t lose their futures to conflict. We build temporary learning spaces and distribute school supplies for kids who have been displaced from their schools and communities.
We work to ensure the most vulnerable children, like those with disabilities, have transportation and resources to continue their education.
And our youth centers and child-friendly spaces give children living in displacement camps and host communities safe places to heal, learn and develop new skills. Learn more: A brighter future starts with an education.
When violence first erupted in Juba in December 2013, Mercy Corps immediately launched an emergency response to provide hygiene items, mosquito nets and other necessities. Today we are providing clean water and hand-washing stations to prevent the spread of disease, training teachers so children can continue to learn, and implementing cash-for-work programs to restore markets and dignity to families affected by the crisis. See additional photos below.
South Sudan should be a country full of hope five years after gaining independence. Instead, it is in the grip of a massive, man-made humanitarian crisis.
Political conflict has caused massive displacement, raging violence and dire food shortages. Over 5 million people are in need of aid, and more than 6 million are facing severe hunger. Despite the lack of international assistance, Mercy Corps is working with the brave people of South Sudan to address urgent needs and promote resilience throughout the country.
When did the crisis start?South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, but the hard-won celebration was short-lived. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling political party that originally led the way for independence, is now divided and fighting for power.
In December 2013, political infighting erupted into violence in the streets of the capital, Juba, after South Sudan’s president accused his vice president of an attempted coup. Fighting between the two factions of government forces loyal to each soon moved to Bor, and then to Bentiu.
Violence spread across the young nation like wildfire, displacing 413,000 civilians in just the first month of conflict. Tens of thousands of civilians rushed to seek refuge in U.N. bases that were subsequently turned into makeshift displacement camps.
The fighting has continued, becoming increasingly brutal and affecting nearly the entire country.
What's going on now?A handful of peace agreements have been signed over the course of the war — the most recent in August 2015 — but they have been repeatedly violated. The situation remains highly unstable.
While some regions have recently become slightly less volatile, allowing people to move around fairly freely and return to their homes, violent outbreaks are still occurring throughout the country.
In February 2016, the U.N. displacement site in Malakal was attacked, killing 25 people and wounding over 120 more. Regions that previously had been relatively safe from clashes have experienced assaults over the past several weeks.
And, most recently, a fresh wave of violence erupted in Juba starting July 8, 2016, just one day before the country's five-year anniversary of independence. The clashes killed more than 300 people over the course of a few days and could push the young nation back into deep chaos.
On top of these unpredictable attacks, the country's economy is in crisis — the South Sudanese pound has declined in value, and the cost of goods and services has skyrocketed. Food prices are at a record high.
What's happening to people in South Sudan?Since the conflict began, 1 in 5 people in South Sudan have been displaced. More than 2.3 million citizens have been forced to flee their homes. Just over 720,000 people have escaped to neighboring countries in search of safety, but most are trapped inside the warring nation.
Those who’ve run have lost loved ones and their homes, their land and their livelihoods. Violence toward civilians has been widespread, including targeted attacks, kidnappings and murders. And assaults on aid convoys and looting of supplies have become increasingly common, making it difficult — and dangerous — to reach in-need families with the support they need to survive.
In the country's most conflict-ridden areas, 70 percent of schools have been closed due to the fighting. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of young ones are facing an uncertain future.
Ongoing violence continues to keep people from their homes, damage markets and disrupt planting, all of which keeps families from getting the food they need to survive. Around 6 million people are currently at risk of going hungry.
Why did the humanitarian situation deteriorate so quickly?
After decades of conflict, South Sudan was and still is one of the least-developed countries in the world, which has further complicated the situation. The larger cities in South Sudan had experienced some development, but the majority of the nation is rural. Even before the crisis, more than half of its citizens lived in absolute poverty, were dependent on subsistence agriculture and suffered from malnourishment. Many people were already refugees and were only beginning to resettle and rebuild their homes. Because the economy was already fragile before fighting began, people have very few resources to help them survive the long-term conflict and displacement they're faced with. In addition, the country has very little formal infrastructure — roads, buses, buildings — which makes it difficult to transport food and supplies. Many towns and villages become inaccessible during the annual rainy season due to closed airstrips, washed out roads or lack of roads altogether, sometimes limiting any delivery of humanitarian aid to the isolated areas that need it most.
Where have people fled to?
Just over 720,000 people have crossed into neighboring countries including Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Inside South Sudan, 1.6 million people are displaced. The crowded U.N. displacement sites are frequently depicted in news about the crisis, but the truth is only a small fraction of those who’ve escaped the violence reside in these camps. The majority of displaced families live outside the camps, wherever they can find safe shelter — often in small villages that offer some security, tucked away from the main areas of fighting. For some living in the most violent areas, there is no other choice but to flee into the bush with what little they can carry with them.
What is life like in camps?
While there may be relative safety in the six U.N. camps, the conditions there are dire. The bases were not designed to host this many people for so long. Proper sanitation, hygiene and waste disposal are inadequate in such crowded conditions, and heavy seasonal rains flood many of the camps, making things even worse. In some camps, flooding has collapsed newly-built latrines, forcing people to walk through knee-high water that is contaminated with sewage. There have been reports of mothers sleeping standing up, holding their children, because there is nowhere clean to rest. In December 2015, the World Health Organization called South Sudan one of the worst health emergencies in the world.
What are the most urgent needs in the camps?
Displaced families receive some food, but there are urgent needs for additional food and disease prevention through better sanitation and access to clean water.
Is South Sudan getting enough assistance?
The short answer: no. The U.N. appealed for $1.6 billion to assist 4.6 million people in need in 2015, but the effort was only 62 percent funded. So far only 39 percent of the $1.29 billion requested for 2016 has been funded. Many humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, are partnering with the U.N., using both private contributions and funding from the international community, to address the urgent needs of innocent people in South Sudan.
How Mercy Corps is providing urgent assistance:
Mercy Corps is working to provide desperately-needed latrines, showers, hand-washing stations and clean water to help people survive and prevent the spread of disease in camps and communities. To help prevent outbreaks, better sanitation, and clean water are critical. Building latrines and teaching proper hygiene and waste disposal are the best ways to ensure that water sources stay clean for people to drink, cook and bathe. In the small villages where many people are sheltering, we have rehabilitated living spaces, provided seeds and tools so people can grow food wherever they are living, and implemented cash-for-work programs to give vulnerable families some money to purchase supplies. We're also distributing emergency funds to help traders and families access goods in hard-hit areas of the country. And our emergency education program trains teachers and provides school supplies so children can continue learning despite this crisis. But the needs of displaced families in South Sudan are increasing, and your support is allowing us to do even more.
How you can help:
The people of this young country need our help, and among the world’s other crises, we must not forget them. We are working on the ground to reach families who are struggling to survive — but our lifesaving work starts with you.