What the U.S. and Niger Have in Common | Opinion

As human rights degrade for women in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, I can't help but think about the West African country of Niger, where I lived for nearly three years. Though Nigerien women face significant challenges, certain among them are similar to what women are facing in America.

Considered one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, Niger has the second highest population growth rate, with an average of about seven children per woman. This is driven by the fact that it also has the highest rate of child marriage, with 28 percent of girls marrying before age 15. With girls dropping out of school to get married (and many never attending at all), only one in four women can read. Once married, cultural norms push women to procreate within the first year while forbidding them from leaving the house—even to seek life-saving care—without their husband's permission. This, in combination with long distances to poor-quality health care, results in childbirth-related complications causing nearly 40 percent of female deaths in Niger.

Perhaps pursuing a break from perpetual pregnancy and the risk of death, some Nigerien women do utilize contraception. While certain husbands consent to this, others do not, which can result in women seeking it out clandestinely. Despite being born in a conservative country where they are taught to believe that they can't (and shouldn't) make their own decisions, these women still yearn to exercise some control over their reproductive capacity.

Decades of humanitarian aid projects have aimed to help women in Niger, not just by providing access to health care but also to education, employment, justice, and opportunities to participate in community decision-making. However, my time in Niger showed me that many Nigerien men believe nonprofits' promotion of the "Western" view that women should have equal rights, or at least access to education and health care, has been an attempt to start a revolution among women and destroy Nigerien culture. In fact, "the culture," and Westerners' inability to work within it, are often-cited reasons for the failure to see improvements for women in Niger.

The Nigerien government is aware of the detrimental impacts of child marriage. They know it's not just about women's rights, but also the economy and security. As Niger is mostly desert and one of the most climate-change-vulnerable countries in the world, the faster the population grows, the fewer resources there are to go around. This demographic explosion plus less arable land and water creates a particular challenge for the majority of the population working in agriculture and has already contributed to a rise in insecurity.

Although the government will acknowledge these risks, it has not curbed child marriage. In fact, after recommitting to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Nigerien National Assembly reportedly refused to vote to increase the marriage age from 15 to 18 for girls (it's already 18 for boys). Why would they deny a measure that not only protects the rights of 50 percent of the population but would also reduce stress on resources and the economy?

I am told it was at the urging of powerful traditional and religious leaders who used arguments about cultural and family values, often grounded in religious texts. These leaders twisted a human rights issue—one that results in a lack of education, poverty, and death—into an issue about power, carefully masked by arguments about morality.

Although many of my contacts in Niger blame "the culture" and religion for women's lack of human rights, shrugging and saying, "You can't change it," one person got right to the root of the problem.

Girl from Niger
Detail portrait of girl from Niger. Anthony Asael/Art in All of Us/Contributor/Getty Images

"Men are afraid that allowing women to make these decisions would take away their power."

She was right. It didn't matter that their tactics damaged people's lives, the economy, and the environment. The powerful elites would do anything to stay in control.

Do you see why striking down Roe v. Wade reminds me of Niger?

It's true, women's rights have significantly improved in the U.S. over the past century, and American women enjoy much more freedom and autonomy than Nigerien women. More American women are working, and harmful gender norms have been partially dismantled. Yet, no laws exist granting women equal pay or maternity leave, and they lack proportional representation in government and other leadership positions. In fact, progress mostly happened in the '70s and '80s but has since stagnated.

Now, the radical right, claiming a moral and cultural high ground not so different from the traditional and religious leaders in conservative Muslim-majority Niger, has succeeded in commandeering women's reproductive rights—usurping what is arguably the most important decision in life: bringing another human being into the world. This indicates that we are regressing, and it's mainly due to power struggles carefully masked by arguments about morality.

Our countries and cultures are so different, yet we have this in common. When women, people from minority races or ethnicities, persons with disabilities, or LGBTQI+ people seek equal access to opportunities, resources, and basic human rights, those with power and privilege only think about what they might lose. There are many excuses used to cover up this truth, but religion and morality are the most pervasive and impossible to debate, even when they are hypocritical.

Those U.S. elites who truly care about family values would care what happens to a family after the birth of an unwanted child. Those Nigerien elites who truly care about culture would embrace policies ensuring that the new generation is not only left with desert sand. These hypocrisies are driven by what lies beneath: the powerful part of the population wants to remain just that—in control of everyone else.

Emilie J. Greenhalgh is an international development professional and gender and social inclusion specialist with a decade of experience working in transitional and conflict-prone countries, including nearly three years in Niger. She holds an MA in international relations and economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and currently resides in Indonesia. Emilie is actively querying agents for her memoir about life in conflict zones and caring for her terminally ill mother. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @emilieonthemove.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Update (7/27/22, 10:42 AM EST): The article was updated per the author's request.