Girls robbed of their childhood in the Sahel

By Laurent Bossard, Director, Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD)

In Mali, Niger and Chad, 40% of children under five suffer from stunting. These children do not receive enough nutrients. Their bodies — their brains, bones and muscles — do not get enough calcium, iron or zinc or enough vitamins (A, B2, B12 etc.), so they do not have enough energy to grow and develop. Many of these children will suffer from chronic diseases and will have cognitive problems — so they won’t be able to go to school for long, if at all. As adults, they will have little chance to flourish and, secondarily, will have low economic productivity. Many will also die very young, often before turning five.

In these countries, at least 100 children out of every thousand die before reaching the age of five. That’s 10 times more than in Sri Lanka, 20 times more than in Canada and 50 times more than in Luxembourg. Why are these children dying and why are they doomed to a hopeless future? 

It’s happening because the girls in these countries — as in many others — are being mistreated.

Niger is, from this point of view, a sad textbook case. More than three-quarters of the girls in Niger get married before they turn 18 and 28% are married by age 15. About 85% of girls under 24 are illiterate and half of Niger’s girls have never gone to school. This explains why the children of these women have such poor outcomes. Everything is linked in a vicious circle of abject poverty, lack of awareness and subjugation.

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At the centre of this circle, the women — who often have been anaemic since early childhood, who married far too young and who are subjected to frequent pregnancies that are too close together — have no chance. Their children don’t either, including the little girls who will be pregnant before they finish growing up and who will perpetuate the cycle.

All of this is well known, but it bears repeating over and over — until we stop moving on to the next topic after merely skimming through the expert reports and the statistical tables with an indifferent gaze.

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We are facing the serious issue of a large number of basic human rights violations. To start with, these children should be neither forcibly married, nor should they be mutilated. And all of them should be educated. Mali, Niger and Chad have signed and ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). It is a good thing that this convention exists. But it remains unheeded in many parts of the world, including in the Sahel.

The fight against child labour is making progress, even if the battle is still far from being won. We talk about it, so much so that more and more governments and companies are concerned. Of course, commercial interests are at stake. Consumers have a poor opinion of companies that use children to make their sneakers.

But what about the millions of little girls who are not allowed to have childhoods and get transformed into subservient wombs at an age when they should be learning how to read? What leverage can we use to make it stop? Outrage? But what is the day of outrage? Should it be the 8th of March, which is International Women’s Day, or the 20th of November, which is dedicated to children? In the Sahel — as in many other parts of the world — 8 March could just as easily take place on 20 November, and vice versa. So, let’s reassure ourselves that it is not just one international day that these mistreated little girls have a right to, but at least two. If we look a little harder, we can add a few more days to the list: 6 February (female genital mutilation), 4 June (children victims of aggression), 8 September (literacy), 15 October (rural women), 25 November (violence against women), etc. Unfortunately, the days that would be out of place on our list are the International Day of Happiness (20 March) and Hugging Day (21 January).If the consideration of these issues is to be limited to a handful of arbitrary dates of the calendar, then what then is the use of our cries of outrage?

This piece first appeared in Le Monde Afrique in French on 8 March 2017 to mark International Women’s Day 2017.