Leyla: Advocating for Niger’s Young Married Girls
She was like an earthquake: shaking everyone around her to the core, exposing their fault lines, damaging their usual demeanor, and challenging their beliefs in what should be the order of things. Unlike other huge natural phenomena like typhoons and hurricanes, earthquakes don’t have names—but this one did, because it was a positive earthquake. It was called Leyla.
Leyla is the new normal for girls in Niger. A girl of 18 who spoke her mind, she was at the youth center to talk about how she benefited from an eight-month empowerment program for adolescent girls to reduce child marriage and teen pregnancy. Leyla had been chosen to speak because she had completed a program called Illimin, which in Houasa means “the knowledge.” Developed by UNFPA, Illimin has since become the flagship program of the government of Niger and is a successful model of what works in adolescent empowerment and child marriage and teen pregnancy reduction.
Leyla went into her storytelling mode timidly, as she told the audience of youth leaders and development specialists about how she was forcibly removed from school at 14 to be married to someone she didn’t know. She was taken by her 34-year-old husband to a city far away from her family, impregnated and beaten by him, lost her first child, impregnated a second time, and left to die when her husband abandoned her. By then, Leyla was 17, pregnant, and totally alone. Fortunately, she was taken in by a neighbor, an older woman who nursed her back to health before she found her way back home with her newborn son, Salim. Through the tears that she had earned so courageously, through the encouragement and solidarity of her captive audience, and through the sensitive lens of a television cameraman, Leyla became a seismic phenomenon. That’s how I met her.
She was an instant star of the small screen as her powerful message touched so many. Unbeknownst to all of us, the cameraman’s daughter had lived a similar experience. He had been against her marriage, but his wife was all for it, and his daughter died in childbirth at 15. Leyla’s story was personal to him, and he ensured the continuous schedule of Leyla’s testimony on state television. After viewing Leyla’s testimony, two government ministers told me they had cried. A parliamentarian explained to me that he finally understood the dire consequences of child marriage and had decided to vote for its elimination whenever such a law came up at the National Assembly.
Then came sadness. Leyla’s former in-laws visited her house to complain about their disappointment with Leyla, who they felt had dishonored them. Leyla’s family asked that the TV station stop showing her powerful testimony. At first, Leyla agreed with them. Then, following discussion with and emotional support from the staff (including me) of the empowerment program she had attended while I was the UNFPA Representative in Niger, she became more and more indignant. Once more, her voice would not be silenced. She embraced it all.
Leyla wanted to go back to school, and I decided to personally invest in her by covering her school fees for two years, until she could take the nationwide state high school test in July 2016, which she passed. Meanwhile, she became an advocate for the elimination of child marriage and teen pregnancy by speaking about her own experience as a child bride with other girls in Niger, at conferences on youth sexual and reproductive health in Cameroon, and with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in Kenya.
But more importantly, Leyla grew to like herself. She loves to speak and tell jokes. She became conscious of the power of her intelligence. As her family now supports her stance, she followed the advice of an uncle and saved enough money from her travels to buy a piece of land. She learned how to use Google, Skype, and Viber so she can be connected to the world. And she is finally enjoying being herself. Marriage? “Been there, done that,” she told me. “I want to concentrate on me and my child now.”
Every two weeks or so, I get a Viber call in Miami from Leyla, now 21 with a four-year old son. She is waiting for her acceptance into a three-year professional and technical training program. I am simply overwhelmed—not only by how far she has come from the timid adolescent victim of child marriage and abuse, but by the resilience, fighting spirit, and enthusiasm of this young woman who now has agency and has finally taken full ownership of her life.