Woman of the Week: Balkissa Chaibou

Forced marriages are an endemic of the most poverty-stricken countries, where hunger and desperation often forces families to sell their daughters as wives when they are merely children. In Niger, a landlocked country in Western Africa, 36% of women are married by the age of 15, and 75% by the age of 18.

With only 10% of girls enrolled in high school, the result of these early marriages point towards a severe neglect of education – aspirations and dreams are shattered in order to lessen their family’s burden. With an average of 7.6 children per woman, these burdens are excessive - roughly 35% of the population suffer from chronic malnutrition

This proved an unwelcome reality for 12 year old Balkissa Chaibou, an aspiring Doctor, who managed to strike a deal with her mother to give herself 5 more years of education before being forced into a marriage with her cousin. As the day drew closer, and her love for her education grew stronger, Chaibou began to fear the loss of her future: “They said if you marry him you won’t be able to study anymore. For me my passion is studying. That’s when I realised that my relationship with him wouldn’t work well.”

After being refused help by her father, she turned to her head teacher, Moumouni Harouna, who referred her to an NGO called the Centre for Judicial Assistance and Civic Action. Her Uncle and Father, however, denied accusations that they were forcing her into a marriage, and so the charges were dropped.  

“I felt pain inside of me, it really broke my heart… Because I see that I am fighting to fulfil myself, and these people will be an obstacle to my evolution”

With no other options, and facing a death threat from her Uncle, Balkissa ran away the night before her wedding where she took refuge in a women’s shelter. After a week, the wedding party had returned back to Nigeria and Balkissa was able to safely return home. She describes the relief she felt when she put back on her school uniform: “I felt like my life was renewed. As if it was a new beginning.”

Balkissa, now 19, travels around visiting schools and urging other girls to say “no” to forced marriages – campaigning for a fairer and just future. She has also spoken at a UN summit on reducing maternal mortality, after statistics show that 34% of adolescent deaths are due to early pregnancies.

Now at Medical School, she is well on her way to becoming a Doctor. Her Mother and Father now oppose the idea of a forced marriage, and approve of Balkissa’s will to continue her education: “We are finished with it in this family. We are scared of it… if a girl grows up she can choose her husband. We can’t do it.”

But Balkissa is not the only one. Many other young girls have boldly stood up in the face of this horrendous reality. Zeinabou Moussa, 15, bit her newly wedded husband’s penis so that he would demand a divorce the following day. He did so. Since then, her parents have stopped forcing her to marry.

Barrâcou was forced to become a second wife to an elderly uncle at just 14 years old despite being in love with her neighbour. After refusing to have sex with him for 4 years, suffering severe physical abuse as a result, she managed to escape back to her village.  She eventually married her neighbour, and the couple now have a son. 

These are just a few of the inspirational stories of young women fighting for their freedom, future and education. But the fight is far from over. It is young girls like Balkissa sharing their stories that contributes to giving young girls the confidence to say “no.” No girl should marry against her will, and no girl should be denied the right to an education as a result.