Just as women’s rights become more widely respected and accepted, so to do the rights of girls. The practice of child marriages is a practice not beneficial to the protection and promotion of girls rights, and nowhere is this practice more prevalent than in Niger. According to Girls-not-Brides, 76% of girls in Niger marry by the age of 18, and 28% marry by the age of 15. In the Diffa region, 89% of girls are child brides. Child brides are at a higher risk of complications during birth, contracting diseases, and being victims of abuse. They are also less likely to pursue an education/career and are less likely to develop fully mentally, physically, and emotionally. 2010s research from the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) suggests that ending child marriage in Niger could save the country more than $25 billion between 2014 and 2030.
If child marriage has such an adverse effect on Niger and its women why hasn’t it ended? The answer is poverty and tradition. Niger was the 11th most impoverished country in the world in 2018 with the average person living on $510 a year. Families tend to want to marry their daughters as soon as possible for economic reasons. A man must pay a girls family to marry her, essentially buying a person; a married daughter is one less mouth to feed, and if the daughter becomes pregnant before marriage, it is nearly impossible to find a husband. Some girls are married to wealthy men from Nigeria who will pay thousands of dollars for a bride. The BBC reported on a woman, married at 13 to a wealthy Nigerian man, who said, “He was always trying to make it clear that it was as if he had bought me, that it was not because I wanted him but because he had bought me.” Child marriage is slavery.
With a poor economy and strict patriarchal traditions, women’s education is lacking. Lack of women’s education leads to more pregnancies and diseases in child brides. The high rate of child pregnancies is a large factor in the reason that Niger has the fifth highest infant mortality rate with 116.6 deaths per 1000 births and the maternal mortality rate of 26.4 deaths per 1000 births. Niger also has the highest birth rate in the world with 7.24 births per woman. Niger has a tradition of child marriages, and many believe that if a girl is physically ready to be married, has had her first menstrual period, then she should be. At a Koranic school in Agadez, Sheikh Abbas Yahaya told the BBC, “It depends on the body of the girl and the man’s body. If the two are mature, the marriage can be OK also, because in Islamic religion even at age nine years, if the girl is in the right condition, she can be able to get married.” Culture is much harder to change in a country.
While child marriages are a significant problem in Niger, it is not a lost cause. The UNFPA has had a 5-year program in Niger since 2013, that works with the Nigerian Government, to fight the causes and effects of child marriages. It also works to educate women and provides them with a birth certificate and health check. In 2014 Niger launched the African Union Campaign to end child marriages. In August 2016, the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Child Protection set up a national committee to end child marriages in Niger. Also, UNFPA and UNICEF’s Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage selected Niger to be one of the 12 countries it sponsors. The United States can be at the forefront of this fight for justice and lead the world in protecting young girls.