It starts with a Girl
Partnering with Girls at Risk in Niger, Africa
By Chantelle McIver
We have all heard the statistics that more than 600 million girls live in poverty in the developing world. The results are often irreversible and devastating to their futures. We can read this, we can be shocked, but the most important thing is – we can do something about it!
For 3½ years I have worked in Niger, Africa amongst the Tuareg people. Niger is consistently ranked one of the poorest countries in the world. Faced with abject poverty, cyclical famines, desertification, tribal conflict and cultural barriers to their success, young girls are constantly at risk. Niger has the world’s highest incidence of early marriage: anywhere from 50%-77% of women are married off before the age of 15 and, on average, women bear seven children each. Early marriage compounds many health risks associated with maternal mortality, high divorce rates and even suicide rates in young girls who feel like they have no way out.
After spending two years doing a small literacy class and hearing the stories of so many young women and sharing their pain and fear, I felt compelled to action. I met young women who were married off in their early teens and who more often than not returned to their parents’ home after a few months, their illusions of marriage and joy shattered as they were tossed out like trash. These girls are not emotionally ready to leave their families and have no clue how to be a wife and mother. I started to dream that if we could reach these girls before they come to that kind of situation, we could have a considerable impact in their lives. But how do you do that in a country that is consistently one of the poorest and worst off in the world and where both religious and cultural influences put girls at risk? Our aim is not to change their culture, but to challenge them to examine their own situations to see what needs to change and to find new ways to do that.
It was under this realization that the Niger Vocational Training Centre for Girls at Risk was launched. In the summer of 2010 the school opened with its first three-year pilot program. We felt it was important to give these girls solid, marketable skills to help support their families but that it was also equally important to invest in them on an emotional level. We take a full day each week outside of their sewing and embroidery classes and teach Math and French, and we also put a strong focus on life skills with topics such as malaria prevention, hygiene, sexuality and family planning, and hand washing. We also purposefully include moral lessons on honesty, self-esteem, loyalty and compassion. I strongly believe that a well-rounded woman of integrity has a much better chance of succeeding, even with all the hardships of life in Niger. We round out the program with a strong emphasis on mentoring the girls, visiting them in their homes and showing them as much love and hope as we can.
I also saw early on that it was important to build strong trust relationships with the families of the girls. We had many meetings and there is an agreement in place with each family that they will not marry their daughters off while she is attending our program. We believe that the gift of time will allow the girls to develop physically and emotionally to be better wives and mothers.
Unity across the ocean
Here in Niger, our team of women (the number fluctuates each year as we have volunteers come and go) act as mentors and teachers to this group of young women. But we are not in this alone. One of the most important cornerstones of our program from the beginning was to promote a connection and unity amongst women across the world. As our program launched and we had 60 girls in Niger, we also had women from all across North America signing on. We wrote up profiles for each girl and paired them up. The roles of the women are not primarily financial in nature. Their main role in the program is linked to prayerfully supporting “their girl” and encouraging her. Many of these women have taken the information about our school and researched the issues, growing their own passion for these girls. They have hosted information nights, bake sales, concerts and many other events to find more supporters and they have also raised significant amounts of money to support the school financially. In 2011, seven of these partners came to Niger to meet “their girls” and help the school with a two-week skills enhancement class. Working side by side, they laughed and learned and bonded. Now, as I look into the faces of these young women I see a growing understanding that they are not alone. Hopelessness begins to be replaced with hope that maybe they will have a chance to succeed and that they will be equipped to choose a better path than their mothers before them. They are grateful that there are people out there who care for them and who support them.
There is an African Proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
For more information on the Niger Vocational Training School for Girls at Risk, please visit www.nvoc.ca, or contact the school at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chantelle Mclver was born and raised in Alberta, Canada. She did her undergrad in French and Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and got her Master’s Degree in International Development from Tulane, New Orleans. Chantelle moved to Niger, Africa in 2008, where she opened up the Niger Vocational Training School in 2010.
Drawn to social justice issues and compassionate work, especially the horrible conditions that many young women live in, she has always wanted to work in third world countries. As an advocate, mentor and friend to the young women in the Girls at Risk School, she seeks to pass on all the blessings in her life to bless others. Aware that her work in Niger is a beautiful partnership with many supporters on the other side of the world, she can’t imagine doing anything else!
Chantelle married her best friend, Paul in 2000 and now have two awesome children, who also love living in Niger. In her spare time she loves hanging out with her family. She is also an avid photographer and loves exploring and traveling.