I met Rahi Harouna when she was making an important life decision – and getting moral support from what many may regard as a surprising source.
Rahi, a 38-year-old mother of five children, was at a health centre run by the aid agency Concern and funded by the European Commission in the village of Bambey, Niger. She was there with a group of women, who – like her – were taking part in a programme to help rural women have more time between pregnancies. Seeing the group was a surprise since not long ago talks about family planning were taboo in Niger. Even more surprising was the presence of the imam. He tells us the Koran teaches that space must be given to mothers between the birth of each child. Here in Bambey the local religious leaders are signed up to family planing and their support is vital to bring down the very high population growth rate – at 3.3 per cent, it means the population doubles every twenty years. Since independence in 1960 the size of Niger’s population has grown from less than two million to 15 million today and this in a country on the top of the global poverty index, with harsh climate and fragile lands.
After considering her family planning options Rahi has decided to go for contraception. “I can’t care for more children” she told me. “I can’t feed them and don’t want to watch them cry for food”. Four pregnancies – the last carrying twins – have taken their toll not just on her but her entire family.
Rahi and her family have lived through three bouts of widespread hunger in the last decade: the third is happening here right now. The annual “hungry season” is about to begin and will start several months earlier than usual. Seven million people are at risk – among them 1.3 million children under the age of 5.
And in another building just across the yard from where Rahi is receiving her treatment there are scores of mothers waiting patiently for their young children to be weighed, assessed and vaccinated. Ouma walked ten kilometres with the youngest of her six children for them to receive treatment for severe acute malnutrition. 300,0000 die of it every year in the Sahel. In this part of the world they can literally measure how many centimetres they are between life and death, using the simple but effective Middle Upper Arm Circumference measurement.
For mothers like Rahi and Ouma there are no easy answers and every day is a battle for existence. But with the right support and advice there is ever greater hope for their children. This is why in the face of a hunger crisis I just announced that we will double our assistance for the countries of the Sahel region. Over 100 million euros will make a huge difference for millions of people – some of whom I just met.