Niger has long been billed as the country with the highest rate of child marriage in the world, so it’s not hard to find someone with direct experience of it.
Fati Hama, a 57-year-old selling fried yam and dough balls on the street in the capital city Niamey, is the first person I asked about it. “This practice is a reality,” she said. “Last Friday, I assisted in a marriage where the man is 17 and the girl is nine.”
Hama explained that the man’s family had paid a “bride price”, or dowry, of 300,000 CFA (€457) for the young girl, though she will not begin to live with him until she turns 15. The couple were distant relatives, which is why it was arranged in the first place, she said. “Everything happened very well. People attended. It happened according to tradition.”
Three girls in four
The statistic agreed by “all organisations” is that “Niger has the worst and the highest rate of child marriage in the world,” said Valerie Koutou, Save the Children’s regional advocacy manager for west and central Africa, in a phone interview from her base in neighbouring Burkina Faso. “Seventy-six per cent of girls in Niger are married before 18,” she said. “This means three girls in four.”
At the same time, Koutou said, those statistics date from 2012 and up-to-date data is lacking. “One of our recommendations to the government is to start collecting new data to see what the progress is like.”
Koutou expects it has been bad. “Because of Covid, conflict and the cost of living, climate issues and displacement, these issues have jeopardised the gains. All of this is making life very difficult today, and we know that child marriage is linked with poverty.”
Climate change is particularly affecting the broader Sahel region, which includes Niger, a country of roughly 25 million people. Temperatures there are expected to rise 1.5 times higher than elsewhere, according to the UN. This means that families “are not able to grow crops like before”, Koutou said.
“To cope with these situations, many parents are more willing to give their daughters to men who are able to pay.” A child bride means one less mouth for parents to feed.
Another factor that increases the rate of child marriage is polygamy, which is legal and widely practised in Niger.
“A man who has only one wife is not [considered] a strong or rich man, so to show that you are strong and rich in your community, you have to take three ,four wives, and this also encourages child marriage in societies,” said Koutou.
It comes with mental health issues because, remember, they are not girls, they are children ... 13 is a child
She said many girls still will get no say in whom they marry. Inside their new husband’s house, a girl or young woman “will be dominated”.
“It comes with mental health issues because, remember, they are not girls, they are children ... 13 is a child. So imagine a child of 13 being married [to] an older man ... not allowed to speak, not allowed to share her opinion, not allowed to say when she’s happy or not happy, not allowed to eat enough. It comes with psychosocial and mental health issues for these girls. The effects can last a long time.”
Legal age of 15
Nigerien fashion designer Alphadi is among famous voices lending his voice to speaking out against child marriage. He marched young girls in wedding outfits alongside much older men during the 2019 International Festival of African Fashion (Fima) in Niamey, to make a point about the inappropriateness of it.
Legally, girls in Niger can marry at 15 and boys at 18 with parental consent, but marriages involving younger people are rarely stopped or sanctioned.
The dangers for girls, including those over the age of 15, include what can happen when they become pregnant. Statistics from 2020 suggest that women in Niger bear nearly seven children each on average, down from nearly eight in the 1980s. A 2017 report said women face a one-in-23 chance of dying from childbirth or pregnancy.
What women’s rights? We have the freedom to do what we want to do
Young girls particularly face serious medical risks, including the risk of developing obstetric fistulas, which happen during prolonged obstructive labour, and can result in the creation of a hole between the mother’s vagina and her bladder or rectum. Women with this condition constantly leak urine or faeces; the resulting smell often means they are rejected by their husbands and communities.
In Niamey, a city of more than one million people, women I met were quick to say that they had a lot of liberty. “What women’s rights? We have the freedom to do what we want to do,” said Hama, the woman who was involved in the marriage of a nine-year-old.
Koutou said that in the city, “for sure things are getting better because more and more girls are going to school, more and more parents are travelling all across the world and seeing how things are going on somewhere else ... we have internet and so on”. Internet usage went up from 1 per cent of Niger’s population in 2014 to 10 per cent in 2017, the latest year that World Bank statistics were available.
In a village in the Maradi region – said to be Niger’s epicentre of child marriage – Rakia Mamoudu (53) sat inside her small home, on a woven green mat. Baby chickens ran around the concrete floor, and a kitten was curled up in front of her.
She explained that she was married by 17, late compared to many of her peers. “When we were young girls, the cases [of child marriage] were rampant,” she said. “Now, here in the village the cases are not many, and even if it happens, the authorities and NGOs intervene and dissuade people to stop it.”
Still, she said, family members are not “arrested as such”, but they will be visited by a local child protection committee, of which she is a member, to try to dissuade them from going ahead. Some react by making arguments for the marriages, including that their daughters are already interested in boys or men, and they are fearful the girls could get pregnant without being in an official relationship.
Mamoudu said the increased enrolment of girls in education had made a big difference. “Before, girls were not enrolled in school . . . When I was young we weren’t in school and got married early.”
Local radio stations also broadcast conversations or warnings about the danger of early marriage, which Mamoudu said she has witnessed herself.
There were a few particularly horrific examples in her area, where married girls who got pregnant when they were about 15 experienced serious medical complications. One underwent surgery twice, she said. Another died. “It was my friend’s daughter. Even myself, when they were going to marry her I tried to dissuade them, the mother didn’t want the marriage but father did.”
Today, Mamoudu says, there is usually less of a forced nature to marriages. Her stepdaughter, who is 14, walks past, and Mamoudu gestures towards her, explaining how marriages happen now.
In some families, if the girl says she’s not interested they’ll leave her alone. In some, they will insist
“A girl like this lives normally, goes to school, goes to market, goes out. She may fall in love with a boy. They begin talking,” she said. “The boy may decide to come to her family, stand at the entrance and talk to her. This might happen for months, years, and the love will develop, then they might decide to inform the parents: ‘We love each other, we want to get married.’ And the parents will make an arrangement between each other.”
Still, in other cases, Mamoudu said, “The parents might decide to propose their daughter to their friend’s son and the girl will be asked. But in some families, if the girl says she’s not interested they’ll leave her alone. In some, they will insist.”
Either way, a dowry is still paid of up to 400,000 CFA (€610), much of which is supposed to go to the bride herself to buy her things like clothes, cosmetics, and a suitcase, or a sewing machine, which could concurrently make her financially independent, said Mamoudu.
For some minors, coming to Niger actually helped them escape from a marriage. Back in her home village in Sokoto State in northwest Nigeria, Halima was forced to marry a friend of her father’s when she was just 13. The man was in his fifties or older, she estimates, though really she has no idea. Her name has been changed, for her safety.
Halima said she was never consulted and hardly knew what to think; she basically just found herself in her new husband’s house one day. In her former village, she said, it was common for girls to get married at 15, but she was particularly young. “He used to beat me and there was not enough food. He had the means, but he was not generous,” she recalled.
“I fled to my parents’ house. They forced me to return. I was in that situation until the attack took place, and then everyone scattered and I escaped.”
Northwest Nigeria has been wracked by insecurity related to groups of armed bandits who kidnap, murder and terrorise civilians, seemingly with impunity. Halima managed to get away from her husband only when bandits attacked her village.
Now 17, she lives in a refugee camp in neighbouring Niger, with her parents and siblings again. Halima said staff from two non-governmental organisations active there, Action Pour le Bien-Etre (APBE) and Save the Children, helped have her marriage dissolved in court. “Here they’re not allowed to force me to get married,” she explained. “Save the Children tell them not to.”
Halima was attending Quranic school in Nigeria, but stopped when she was married. Today, she is getting no education.
“What worries me now is there’s just nothing to do here, no joy. I’d like to do clothes tailoring. If I could be taught to sew, get a machine, I’d like that. I’d get customers. I’m interested in business.”
Nearby, Halima’s mother – who herself was wed at 17 – explained that she had initially not been keen to marry off her daughter. She said the man involved was her husband’s friend. “He was alone and wanted to get married ... he begged my husband and convinced him.”
“Later, we realised he was not a good person,” she continued. “My daughter was not well, we knew she was not well, but now she’s free. Now she has the freedom to marry if she falls in love ... Now officially she’s divorced, the court has issued a paper.”
Her concern now is that the girl’s former husband might try to reclaim a dowry of 20,000 naira (€40) if her daughter ever marries again.
But, for now, that is not on Halima’s mind. “I’m very happy,” she said, speaking about the day she found out her marriage had been dissolved. “If there’s any girl in this situation, I’d advise them to contact NGOs like Save the Children, [find] anyone that can help them.”