“My mum told me that my uncle had given me away in marriage without letting her know,” Hadiza says. “She then showed me tins of coke and sweets and said that it was for my wedding’s Fatiha. Then I started to cry too.”
At this time her father was away working in the Ouaga area as a truck driver. Hadiza’s uncle – her father’s younger brother – had arranged the marriage without telling anyone.
He owed money to the father of the man Hadiza was due to marry, but had no way of paying the debt. So he gave away Hadiza’s hand in marriage to settle the score.
As a young girl who loved school, Hadiza knew this marriage would be the end of her education. Looking back on this time, she says: “My childhood was like a broken dream because my dreams never came true.”
She desperately wanted to escape the marriage, so two days after being told the news, Hadiza ran away from her family and hid in the woods. After three days alone, “so exhausted that [she] couldn’t speak”, a local fisherman spotted her and took her back to the city.
Her brother had been searching for her, and on hearing that a girl had been found in the woods went to bring her home.
Hadiza was soon married to the older man who immediately told her she could no longer go to school. The teenager tried hiding again, but soon realised she couldn’t keep running.
“My uncle told my mum, he even called me, and he said that if I refused to accept the marriage, that meant that my mum had pushed me into refusing it so my mum would have to leave the house too.
“My dad wasn’t there and if they had gone after my mum, my sisters’ lives would have been ruined. So that’s why I accepted to stay. I sacrificed myself for the wellbeing of my brothers and sisters.”
Hadiza’s husband took her over a thousand kilometres away from Tillaberi to Agadez, where the relationship would become even more controlling.
“My mum cried for two weeks straight,” Hadiza says. “She even had problems with her eyes as a result.”
Living in this new home in Agadez, her husband began to hit her, and would go long periods of time without feeding her.
Every night after they arrived he would try and have sex with her, and when she refused she would be beaten.
“As soon as your wife is given over to you, the very night that she is given to you, you have to touch her,” Hadiza says. “The day that he took my virginity, a shameful thing to do, he was accompanied by his four friends. His four friends held me down as he took my virginity from me.”
With no friends or family near, Hadiza would regularly sleep in the local station to escape the abuse, and go to neighbour’s houses for food. During this time, she became pregnant – a child that would go on to be stillborn.
After three years of marriage, and having a second child who survived, Hadiza was able to escape her husband and move to Niamey. Rather than moving back in with her mother, she lived with her maternal uncle so her husband would not be able to find her.
“He’s the one that tells me to not go back to Tillaberi because even if I go back, the guy is going to come after me.”
While living with her uncle, Hadiza met a representative from the UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency. She became an ambassador, learnt to read and write, and met a woman through the organisation who helped her go back to school. She is also involved in the Sarraounia project implemented by Enabel which is part of the Belgian development agency. The project works to keep girls in school and offer them an alternative to early marriage.
“I went back to year 9 and was luckily top of the class. I carried on to year 10 and was top of the class too.” Hadiza went on to not only graduate from high school, but at 23 is now in the final year of a professional diploma in electronics, as well as continuing to work for non-profits helping young women in Niger.
“I will carry on studying in Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco as there are no schools here in Niger where I can study electronics.”
Despite her determination to study, and her previous traumatic marriage, there is still pressure on Hadiza to get remarried.
“Last year, my dad told me that I had to get married. I told him no, that I didn’t need to get married now. I told him that I am going to carry on studying until I finish my studies.”