By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
HAWKANTAKI, Niger (AP) - Each day before the reaping, the 11-year-old girl walked between the stunted stalks of millet with a sense of mounting dread.
In a normal year, the green shoots vaulted out of the ground and rose as high as 13 feet (4 meters), a wall tall enough to conceal an adult man. This time, they only reached her waist. Even the tallest plant in her family's plot barely grazed her shoulder.
Zali could feel the tug of the invisible thread tying her fate to that of the land. As the world closed in around her, she knew that this time the bad harvest would mean more than just hunger.
In Hawkantaki, it is the rhythm of the land that shapes the cycle of life, including the time of marriage. The size of the harvest determines not only if a father can feed his family, but also if he can afford to keep his daughter under his roof.
Even at the best of times, one out of every three girls in Niger marries before her 15th birthday, a rate of child marriage among the highest in the world, according to a UNICEF survey.
Now this custom is being layered on top of a crisis. At times of severe drought, parents pushed to the wall by poverty and hunger are marrying their daughters at even younger ages.
A girl married off is one less mouth to feed, and the dowry money she brings in goes to feed others.
"Families are using child marriage, as an alternative, as a survival strategy to the food insecurity," says Djanabou Mahonde, UNICEF's chief child protection officer in Niger.
This drought-prone country of 16 million is so short on food that it is ranked dead last by international aid organization Save the Children in the percentage of children receiving a "minimum acceptable diet."
The consequences are dire. A total of 51 percent of children in Niger are stunted, according to a report published in July by Save the Children. The average height of a 2 1/2-year-old girl born here is around 3 inches (8 centimeters) shorter than what it should be for a child that age.
In the tiny village of Hawkantaki, nearly every household has lost at least one child to hunger or the illnesses that come from it. Their miniature graves dot the hamlet.
Nana Abdou's 1-year-old brother, who died of hunger last year, is buried in a corner of the animal pen. Soon after his death last year, her family accepted the dowry. Twelve-year-old Nana is engaged to be married before the end of the year.
"Our problems started a long time ago, but every year it's gotten worse," she says. "The fathers are marrying off their daughters to reduce their overhead... He's obliged to if he wants to reduce the number of children he has to feed."
The numbers tell the story in Hawkantaki, population around 200.
Last year, before the start of the harvest, there were 10 girls in Hawkantaki between the ages of about 11 and 15. By spring of this year, seven were married, and another two are engaged.
That's a rate of 90 percent, three times the national average.
None of these girls had "done her laundry" yet, the local euphemism for a woman's menstrual period. And every single one says hunger hastened her marriage.
The youngest is Zali, a whisper of a girl, whose waist is so tiny you can almost encircle her with your hands. She has no breasts to speak of. Her voice hasn't broken yet.
Seen from the sky, the village of Hawkantaki looks like a brown dot on a sheet of neon green.
The houses of hand-patted mud are built around a village square. Zali's faces the northern side. It takes exactly 36 seconds to walk from her door to that of her best friend Aisha, directly opposite on the southern side. Aisha's cousin Rama lives on an alleyway leading off the square. So do their friends Marliya, Sarey, Shoubalee, Sadiya, Shamseeya, Rakhiya and Nana, all aged between 12 and 15.
"You can't say Zali's name without saying Aicha in the same breath, or Aicha without Marliya, or Marliya without Sarey," said Aicha's mother, Habsou Daouda. "These girls are inseparable."
There are no calendars on the walls. Instead of months, they count "moons." Years are remembered in terms of harvests. Ages can be calculated by the events that happened at the time of a person's birth.
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