Paediatrician Julia blogs about life for women in Niger, and how the health of their children moves them to break free of tradition...
It is midday and the heat lies heavily over the tents. The sand glows at 45 °C, and there is a certain quietness around the hospital.
One does not suspect that within these tents we have 160 little patients, together with their 160 mothers and hundreds of siblings.
Quietly, the women lie with their children in the beds, waiting for treatments and therapies, the distribution of milk, and ultimately their recovery. No quarrelling, no urging, no need for a better bed or better food.
The decision for women to go to hospital in Niger is incredibly complex.
My colleagues helped explain that women often have to ask their husband or mother-in-law for permission to leave the household, and for transport money.
Julia and her colleagues at the MSF hospital in Niger. Photo: Julia Rappenecker/MSF.
People sometimes hesitate to give their consent: after all, it is the role of the wife to provide for the entire household.
In local villages, this means getting water and firewood every day, finding food, preparing food, meeting the needs of the children, the man, the mother-in-law. The man is responsible for getting the money but the rest, and especially the children, are women's affairs.
Children's health comes first
Many women first go to the "marabou", the local healer.
When his therapies have not helped, and the mothers get more and more worried, they organise money to travel to the hospital in overcrowded buses or ox carriages – with or without the husband’s consent.
The health of their children is what comes first.
One of our health promoters tells me that for the women themselves, the simple conditions they find themselves in with MSF, in a hot tent with 40 other children and their companions, are well accepted. Few are sleeping in a bed at home.
Women in Niger
Marriage at an early age, combined with a widespread lack of educational opportunities for girls (many do not go to school), have caused a high birth rate among Niger's women. It also places a dependency for family income heavily on the men.
According to UN data, average girls here get married by the age of 15, and give birth to 7.5 children per household.
Children with their mothers at the MSF hosptial in Niger. Photo: Julia Rappenecker/MSF.
Almost none of our patient’s mothers can read and write. As I understand it, maternal illiteracy can be one of the many factors that impact on child health, including malnutrition and associated pathologies.
My Nigerien colleague is an exception - she had the opportunity to go to school to study medicine. With the help of her parents, she found a place to study and a husband who initially agreed to it.
Unfortunately, he changed his mind while she was studying in the capital, far from him. He explained to her that he prefers a woman who rests at home.
Now she is divorced from him and lives independently with her little daughter and her friend.
"In this one moment, the world belongs to these women"
Once a month, our health promoters perform in their band in the hospital.
On this occasion, the mothers come outside the MSF tents, carrying their children in their colorful clothes.
A large circle is formed, and the first women begin to dance in its centre. We are greeted with joy and joyful laughter.
"A large circle is formed, and the first women begin to dance in its center." Photo: Julia Rappenecker/MSF.
Many faces radiate happiness, the babies on the backs of the mothers watching us curiously, the bigger confident children start giggling, the more timid dancing between their mama's skirts.
In this one moment the world belongs to these women. There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more peaceful than the dance of these women.
The more I walk from bed to bed, the more I get an insight into these women's history and experiences, and the stronger my respect for them grows.