Sep 22nd 2018
IN A dusty village in southern Niger, Fatia
holds her daughter close to her breast, smiling, though the baby looks much too
large for her. Four years ago she married at the age of 16, she reckons, but
she may have been younger. Since then she has had two children.
Three out of four girls in Niger are
married before they are 18, giving this poor west African country the world’s
highest rate of child marriage. The World Bank says it is one of only a very
small number to have seen no reduction in recent years; the rate has even risen
slightly. The country’s minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 15, but some
brides are as young as nine.
Across Africa child marriage stubbornly
persists. Of the roughly 700m women living today who were married before they
were 18, 125m are African. Among poor rural families like Fatia’s the rate has
not budged since 1990. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that, on
current trends, almost half the world’s child brides by 2050 will be African.
But some countries have shown they can keep
young girls out of wedlock. In Ethiopia, once among Africa’s top five countries
for child marriage, the practice has dropped by a third in the past decade, the
world’s sharpest decline, says the World Bank. The government wants to
eradicate child marriage entirely by 2025.
Ethiopia offers lessons for other African
countries. For one thing, it shows that in religious societies you must win
over imams and priests. Guday Emirie of Addis Ababa University notes that in
one district a local priest, having been publicly shamed for marrying off his
own daughter when she was a child, has since been preaching against the
practice. It has now been eliminated in his district. Conservative imams in
Niger, by contrast, often invoke the Prophet’s marriage to a young girl,
according to tradition.
After a decade of strong economic growth,
Ethiopia’s poverty rate is now half that in Niger, one of the world’s poorest
countries. Many of its people, says Lakshmi Sundaram of Girls Not Brides, an
NGO, believe that “child marriage is a way of reducing the number of mouths to
feed”, as the bride moves in with another family.
Education is even more vital. “You
generally don’t find a child bride in school,” notes a UNICEF expert in
Ethiopia. Its government spends more on education as a proportion of its budget
than other African countries. More than a third of its girls, a big increase,
enrol in secondary schools. In Niger the figure is less than a fifth.
Curbing child marriage could lower
fertility rates by about a tenth in countries like Niger and Ethiopia. Doing so
would immeasurably improve the lives of women like Fatia. On her wedding night,
she says she begged her husband not to force himself on her. “He was bigger
than me. It hurt too much,” she says, looking down at her daughter.