Story and photo by JOAN ERAKIT/IPS
Dry, hot and often plagued with sandstorms, Niger has a population of more than 17.2 million. Insecurity, drought and cross-border crime contribute to this West African nation’s fragility, in which only 50 percent of its citizens have access to health services.
Traditional chiefs in Niger are extremely influential leaders — even heads of state and presidents seek their counsel before making big decisions. Understanding the chiefs’ role, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has built a partnership promoting the health and rights of women. The country has the world’s highest birthrate and a high rate of infant mortality. In 2012, the traditional chiefs of Niger signed an agreement with UNFPA making a commitment to improve the health conditions of women.
Formed in 2011, the School of Husbands has more than 130 locations in Niger’s southern region of Zinder. Members are married men between the ages of 25 and 50, but young boys are now being recruited to sit in on meetings — to learn from their elders.
Yahya Louche is the chief of Bande and believes in the importance of involving men in childbirth. “The School of Husbands is where there is no teacher and there is not student. They are not getting paid; they are working for the well-being of the population,” Louche said of the informal institution that brings together married men to discuss the gains of reproductive health and family planning.
The school is a prime example of what can happen when men stand shoulder to shoulder with women, promoting safe births. “Before the School of Husbands, women didn’t want to go for delivery at health centers; they would stay at home and have their babies,” Louche said.
The schools are carefully introducing the use of contraceptives — a controversial practice in a country where a large family in considered a status symbol. The school teaches that large families are difficult to feed in hard times, and the chiefs are promoting the notion of fewer children. They are also discouraging the practice of child brides.
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