When you were a child, do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?
How many of us grew up to become what we desired at those young ages?
It is a challenge. But it is a more significant challenge for some.
This is the story of Balkissa Chaibou. This little girl from Niger, a country north of Nigeria in Africa, fought an epic battle against the past, the family, the tradition.
It was a dry morning. Most days are dry in Niamei, the city where Balkissa lives. She was happy. Every day she went to school was a sunny day. Being a 12-year-old child, Balkissa focussed on the tasks ahead of her. To study and learn enough to become a medical doctor. Yes, this was Balkissa's dream, to become a medical doctor one day!
She had a long and challenging way to go, but this was the only path for her.
That dry, happy day ended most disappointingly for Balkissa. Her dear mother informed her that she was going to be wedded to a cousin.
This conversation instantly shattered her life. She had other schoolmates to whom this happened. They did not continue to study. She knew that if this forced marriage went ahead, becoming a medical doctor was impossible, studying was impossible, life would be impossible.
So, she decided to take the other available option. At the age of 12, she decided to fight against centuries of tradition.
Unlike many other families in Niger, her parents could support her. Many forced marriages in Niger occur due to economic difficulties. They send them to other families by marrying their daughters, and life becomes a little easier but sadder in most cases. Balkissa pleaded to her mother and struck a deal with her family to study for five more years.
The promise to her middle-aged cousin was bound to occur, but she was committed to pursuing her destiny.
As time went by, she fell in love with knowledge and feared the inevitable day more and more. Finally, Balkissa started to take actions that could lead to her freedom.
First, she asked for help from her father. Due to the Tuareg traditions, the uncle, father of her fiancé, could end the engagement. This is because he had tribal power.
The most dreaded day was dangerously close.
Then, Moumouni Harouna, her school principal, got her in contact with the Center for Judicial Assistance and Civic Action. This NGO was willing to help her. Moreover, they had the means to take the fight to another level: the courthouse.
In the court of law, the father and the uncle got charged for forcing Balkissa to marry. However, they denied the charges. It was a “misunderstanding,” and that was the end.
When they all got home at the end of the process, the uncle threatened Balkissa’s life. So she ran away and found protection in a woman's shelter.
This led to impending prison charges against her uncle. After a week in the women's shelter, Balkissa returned home knowing that the marriage was, finally, canceled.
She had won.
A few years have passed. However, Balkissa is still pursuing her dream. She is finishing her studies to become a medical doctor.
She never lost sight of her life goal, she never conceded her dreams, but Balkissa developed another drive, one that she is willing to fight for with the same tenacity.
Every day, little girls are forced into arranged marriages in Niger. Balkissa understands better than anyone what it is to have her dreams threatened, and to fight, and to win!. She has become a very active and vocal member of her community. She is working with several local organizations to tell her story to children and young women. Tell them that there are other ways and that it is possible to fight back and win.
She defied the traditions and won. She decided to keep doing it, and she kept on winning.
She is an inspiration in her community, and each “Balkissa” that decides to follow a path of freedom is a victory, a victory that makes the dry mornings taste like a breeze of hope.
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