In Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, cyclical droughts make growing enough food to feed the nation’s people a constant struggle. As a result, chronic malnutrition plagues rural villages.
Mercy Corps has been working in Niger since 2005 to increase food security, help rural families grow more food, support small businesses, and empower women and girls.
In regions where girls are traditionally marginalized, providing education helps them voice their own needs, make their own choices, and eventually results in a community with stronger female leaders.
Hadjia Aissatou joined Mercy Corps’ Niger team in February 2013. Hadjia helps ensure that Mercy Corps’ work in Niger serves men and women, girls and boys — and helps them work together equally to improve their communities.
Hadjia recognizes the many challenges that the rural communities of Niger face, but she is also hopeful for a future Niger where families can grow enough food to prosper and where girls and women are powerful forces in their communities.
My background and position with Mercy Corps: I was born and spent most of my life in Niger's capital, Niamey. I studied sociology at the University of Niamey, and I have a great passion for working in rural communities.
I am now the Gender Specialist for Mercy Corps’ Sawki program, which focuses on building food security. I am responsible for incorporating gender considerations throughout the program.
I advise staff on the importance of gender and working with both men and women, in order to incorporate those considerations into the design, implementation and evaluation plan for each part of the program. This includes creating safe spaces and providing mentors for young women and girls in the places we work.
Why working in rural villages is important: The three years that I lived in rural areas as a field officer had a big influence in who I am today. Living in the village allowed me to understand the socio-cultural realities of a rural community, especially the relationship between men and women.
I work on gender issues not just as a job, but because I really want to see changes in relationships between men and women, and between girls and boys.
Rural communities are very attached to customs, and that’s why it’s so difficult to enact change. It’s very common for people to hang on to traditional practices in rural areas, even if the practice is bad.
To fight poverty and create just and prosperous populations, communities must get rid of some old practices and adopt new practices that are conducive to sustainable and successful development.
Why I work for Mercy Corps: I work here because I share the Mercy Corps vision of working to alleviate suffering, poverty and human oppression by helping people build safer, more productive and more just communities for themselves — in partnership with the public sector, the private sector and civil society.
This vision is in harmony with the vision that I had of the world before coming to Mercy Corps.
What I love most about what I do: What I love the most about my work is the interaction with rural communities and the discussions, debates and sharing of opinions during training and awareness-building sessions.
What’s most important and comforting to me is seeing people satisfied with my support and my coaching.
One story of change: Hannatou Sani is a 14-year old girl who never had the chance to go to school, but is part of a group of girls who come to our safe spaces and discussions set up by the Sawki program. Their mentors educate them about things like: What is early marriage? What are the consequences of early marriage? How do you combat early marriage?
Four months ago, Hannatou’s parents wanted to give her away in marriage. Hannatou explained to them that she is not old enough to get married and, as her mentor taught her, girls must be at least 18 years old to get married. She also told them that there are many consequences related to early marriage.
Despite Hannatou’s cries and refusal, her parents didn’t listen to her because they were under pressure from the man’s family who had already paid her dowry. Hannatou confided in her mentor, who asked her permission to go talk to her parents.
After discussions with them, Hannatou’s parents agreed to negotiate a postponement of the marriage with the other family, who had no choice but to accept.
How we can support girls: It’s very important to work with girls because the development of a community and country is impossible when you remove a part of the population. Our work with girls helps them reach their full potential and develop the skills, knowledge, and attitude required to help them succeed and navigate the opportunities that are available to them.
We can help them better articulate their needs, identify and solve problems, make decisions, and on the whole, shape their own future.
Girls need a foundation of knowledge, skills and experience that prepares them to take control of their lives. The safe spaces in our program are a place where girls can learn, even if they have not had the chance to go to school.
My hopes for my country: Niger is a poor country with people who value solidarity, hospitality and helping others. It’s a country full of challenges, but I dream of a Niger where food self-sufficiency will be a reality, where men and women, young people and older people will all have a place in the management of the country. Where the possibility of electing a woman as President is no longer seen as a negative thing, but as an expression of the vitality of our young democracy.