Child marriage is any formal marriage or any informal union in which one or both parties are under the age of 18, as defined by The Girls Not Brides organization. Niger has the highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world. 76% of girls are married before their 18th birthday and 28% are married before the age of 15. Child marriage is most prevalent in Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder(girlsnotbrides.org 7).These girls are married off before they reach an age of maturity and are faced with challenges that they are not physically or mentally mature enough to adequately deal with. According to UNICEF, Niger has the 14th highest absolute number of child brides – 676,000. The majority of these child brides had no say in the decision to be married. They are forced to miss out on opportunities such as education which could’ve meant the difference between a better future or baring children at very young age. Factors such as poverty and gender inequality had driven the majority of these marriages. Child marriage continues to be a prevalent issue in Niger with 76% of girls getting married before the age of 18 and the country needs to do more to end the unethical practice.
Most child marriages occur under customary law. Customary law is “…the norms of conduct that are practiced in society because they have been accepted for a long time and are regarded as obligatory.” Parents will marry off their daughters because it is what was done by the previous generation and is seen as normal in the community. Customary law in Niger has enabled child marriage for many generations up to today. Because customary law developed in an age of patriarchy, some of its norms conflict with human rights and modern day values such as gender equality(Ndulo 10). While government legislation holds substantial power and influence over modern day society, it must reform customary law as well. Niger does have a minimum age requirement for marriage. Under the Civil Code 1993 girls can get married as young as 15 and boys can get married at 18(girlsnotbrides.org 7). However, with parental consent, girls can get married much younger.
The Nigerien government has taken steps toward ending child marriage. Niger has ratified the majority of national agreements relating to the rights of women and children. There are currently national policies that address or try to address certain aspects of child marriage. The National Policy on Nutritional Security addresses early pregnancy. The Ministry for the Advancement of Women and Child Protection created the National Gender Policy for Prevention and Management of Gender-based Violence strategy in 2017(Save the Children’s Resource Centre 12). One of the strategic pillars had addressed child marriage and created an action plan to prevent early pregnancies. However this strategy did not approach a solution to child marriage in holistic way. In 2014 Niger launched the African Union campaign to end child marriage. The theme was obstetric fistula which is an injury that can occur during childbirth. Obstetric fistula is most common among young mothers whose bodies aren’t developed enough to give birth. In 2017 a First Ladies’ forum on obstetric fistula was held in Niamey. As of 2018, the government is in the process of developing Niger’s first National Action Plan to End Child Marriage. Although the country has taken steps to end child marriage it’s policy makers continue to be influenced by certain islamic associations and influential people who don’t want to end the practice because of religion and tradition. Culture norms, prejudices and taboos surrounding child marriage also influence lawyers and politicians, as well as pressure of religious groups.(Save the Children’s Resource Centre 12) This kind of resistance has hindered initiatives to end child marriage such as the adoption of the family code and laws to protect girls in school.
There are currently many organizations fighting child marriage in Niger. In 2012 UNFPA(United Nations Population Fund) launched Action for Adolescent Girls. In this program, girls were provided a safe space to talk about their lives and daily challenges. During the sessions of Action for Adolescent Girls, girls learned about their rights and how child marriage was a violation of human rights. They also received lessons in literacy, numeracy, and financial literacy(UNFPA 15). This program provided a better alternative to girls instead of early marriage and better conditions for girls who had already married.
There are many drivers of child marriage in Niger. Gender inequality and tradition are the main causes. Women are expected to take on the role of a wife and that’s it. Because they are already limited to that path most parents will take them out of school to get married because a wife has no need for an education. This takes away the ability for the girl to financially support herself and makes her chances of escaping the forced marriage even slimmer. Most child marriages are organized by the parents and in most cases the girls have no say. They will marry off their daughters because it is customary, because it is what the generation before them has done and it is seen as normal in the community. They also believe that married girls receive a level of respect that is not received by single women no matter how successful they are(girlsnotbrides.org 7). Marrying a girl at a young age is also a way to prevent premarital relations. There are cases in which parents will get worried when the daughter communicates or forms a bond with a male outside of the family and will marry her off to prevent premarital relations.
Pregnancy before marriage is a source of shame for the family. In some areas such as rural Marake, girls will be married off before their first period since that is seen as loss of virginity which also brings shame to the family(girlsnotbrides.org 7). Parents will also marry off their daughters young because younger brides are seen as more respectful and obedient. Child brides are also likely to be second or third wife to a rich husband. Unfortunately if the child bride is the fifth wife she is likely to be part of a practice called wahaya. In wahaya the fifth wife is typically a slave and is trafficked among rich, older, urban males(girlsnotbrides.org 7). Poverty is also a driver in child marriage. Niger is one of the world’s poorest nations. Over 46% of its population lives below the poverty line(The Borgen Project 14). Parents will marry off their daughters to ensure financial stability for her and to relieve themselves of the economic burden. But in the process they will take their daughter out of school and prevent her from receiving an education. By doing so they limit her opportunities for a lucrative career and many chances to financially support herself. According to the 2012 Demographic and Health Survey 57% of Nigerien girls aged 10-15 are not in school, often because wives are expected to stay at home. In some cases school isn’t an option at all. Education is not accessible for all Nigerien children as it is is in developed countries. There is a lot of gender discrimination which gets in the way of girls going to school. It can also be financially straining for the parents to send children to school(Educate a Child 4). It becomes difficult to pay for transportation,school fees, supplies, and books, especially since parents who live below the poverty line only make $1 per day. Children who live in urban/rural areas may not be able to attend school because there are no schools in the area.
Child marriage has many devastating effects. It enforces the cycle of poverty. When girls are married off they are immediately expected to stay home and bare children. This ends their education and any opportunities of financial independence or ability to have a lucrative career. Her children are then limited to only one source of income assuming the mother will stay home and the father takes responsibility to provide for the family. The limited source of income may affect the amount of education and opportunities her children will have which puts them at the risk of poverty, continuing the cycle. Early marriage can devastate a young girls physical and mental well being. Young brides are expected to prove their fertility and bare children whether they are physically and mentally ready or not. Statistics say that 35% of all adolescent deaths between ages 15 and 19 are caused by giving birth(girlsnotbrides.org 7). Obstetric fistula is one of the health risks for young mothers giving birth. 48% of women affected by obstetric fistula first suffered from it between ages 10 and 19. An obstetric fistula is a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder that is caused by prolonged obstructed labor, leaving a woman unable to control urination or defecation(Fistula Foundation 6). Young pregnant girls run this risk more than older women because their bodies are under developed. The female pelvis reaches full width between ages 25-30 making those ages more ideal for childbearing(sciencedaily.com 13). Because the vast majority of the Nigerien population lives in rural areas, girls affected by obstetric fistula are far from quality medical care and emergency obstetric fistula. Home deliveries are common in such areas and the maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world(Fistula Foundation 5). Maternal mortality rate is the annual number of female deaths per 100,000 live births related to pregnancy or caused by pregnancy and the management of it. In 2015 Niger had a maternal mortality rate of 553(Central Intelligence Agency 1). Another effect of child marriage is the mistreatment and abuse of young girls. Child brides are more susceptible to domestic abuse due to the power dynamic in the typical relationship child marriages create between a young girl and a much older male partner. Because the husband is much older he is easily able to assert more power over the young girl. It is hard for girls to escape these abusive marriages because violence against women is seen as normal or typical in Nigerien communities(Nigersnewestchild.weebly.com 11) . There are a lot of cases in which newly wed young brides will run away from their husbands and try to go back to the parents, but the parents will force her to go back. It’s also hard for women to get a divorce because they are not seen as equals under Nigerien law.
Supporters of child marriage will try and argue that marriage is the best option for young brides. Marriage provides financial security for girls. The reasoning behind that argument is that girls can’t provide for themselves and need a husband to take care of her. But that reasoning is flawed because girls are just as apt to take care of themselves as men are if they were offered the same opportunities. They perpetuate the problem and obstacles that lie between girls and self sustainability by spreading the belief that women are incompetent and are only fit to be wives. Supporters will also argue that it is custom and that custom can’t be changed. That argument is also flawed because everything changes with time. Reasons for which a custom was practiced in the past may not be practical now. Traditions may not line up with modern and changing values. Supporters will also argue that child marriage is beneficial to everyone because in addition to providing security to the child bride it also relieves the financial burden on the family. That benefit is only short term because once she is married off her education is curtailed along with her economic opportunities. This makes it harder for her to give her children better opportunities.
Then there are the religious reasons behind child marriage. The main religion of Niger is Islam. Religious supporters will try and argue that Ayesha married the prophet Muhammad right after reaching puberty. But their relationship was known for the mutual love, respect, and equality. That is not the case for current forced or early marriages. Ayesha was an assertive and intelligent. She become a great scholar of Islam with an authoritative role in public life. Those qualities would not be praised in a Nigerien girl today. They are judged on how respectful and obedient they are. According to the Quran the purpose of marriage is to create a successful union that promotes love, tranquility and mercy between husband and wife, and contributes to a healthy society. The Quran sets out basic conditions for marriage for example, both parties must consent. There has to be a mutual attraction, compatibility, and an agreement on terms of marriage between the spouses. Both parties have to reach physical maturity. Child marriages in Niger don’t call for any of those requirements. Child brides have little to no say in the planning of their marriages and during the marriage. The Quran does not support early or forced marriage so supporters who argue that Islam defends child marriage are inaccurate.
Fadi is a girl from Dosso who almost became a victim of child marriage. She is 15 years old and in the fifth grade. She goes the secondary school in the Yambar© village. According to Fadi’s mother, their village does not consider education important and think that marriage is the best thing for a girl. Fadi was happy to go to school and dreamed of getting a job after her education. She lived with her grandmother but went to visit her parents during the holidays. During a holiday a visit a man continually went to visit her father. Soon enough Fadi finds out that man is supposed to be her future husband and her parents have been planning out her marriage. The whole village knew about it except her. Fadi’s teachers learned about the arrangement and went to her house to try to talk her father out of it. The marriage was called off and Fadi was motivated to work even harder in school even though she was the top of her class. Her school is now planning to place a governing body to help students continue with their education. Fadi is grateful for the help of her teachers and wishes to educate her female peers on the dangers of child marriage and the importance of education.
Zeinabou who was from the Zinder Region of Niger, was 15 when her parents forced her to drop out of school and marry a much older man. Her husband physically abused her and tried to coerce her into sexual activity. She ran away many times but her parents always forced her to go back. After a month of relentless violence she moved back home and her husband divorced her. She ended up participating in the pilot phase of Action for Adolescent Girls. Again, this program provides a safe space to talk about life and struggles. It also provides lessons on literacy and mathematics and educates girls on human rights and why child marriage is wrong. Zeinabou wants to continue her studies to become a teacher.
Child marriage can be combated many ways. Education could be made more accessible to children living in rural areas. The government could set up some kind of feasible stipend to help cover school fees so parents have nothing to lose by sending their daughters to school and are able to afford her an education. The government could also create programs and initiatives to educate parents on the importance of education for their daughters. Another solution would be to replace current marriage laws with one that sets the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both girls and boys with no exceptions. The government must take the path Gambia has taken when it comes to making laws around marriage. Gambia has created laws that punish perpetrators of child marriage. Parents who force their daughters to marry before the legal age can face prison time as well as the groom and anyone else who knew plans of the marriage and did not report it to the authorities(Dailymail.com 3). Government officials who oppose child marriage must set an agenda to speak with religious leaders and engage with local communities. Because religious leaders ordain what behaviors are acceptable, they can influence change in their communities and challenge norms(Cislaghi 2). They perform and register marriages so they can check the ages of the bride and groom and help prevent early marriage. Fighting child marriage in Niger is not easy though. Gender inequality is ingrained in the culture and poverty is a big driver behind child marriage, an issue that is not so easy to solve.
Many Nigerien girls who live in rural areas are suffering right now. They live in a society that is plagued with gender inequality and chances are that they will be married off young and not given the opportunity for an education. The mistreatment of them and the roles they are limited to is seen as normal. Although the Nigerien government has taken steps to end the immoral practice of child marriage, they must do more. The policymakers who are dragging their feet when it comes that issue need to wake up and reevaluate themselves and the gravity of the issue. They need to study the customs in their culture and think about why they developed and if they are necessary in the modern world. The arguments that have been made to defend child marriage lack reasoning and compassion for the young girls who are at risk of having their lives derailed. Child marriage robs innocent girls of their innocence and their potential for a better future. Politicians, community leaders, and religious leaders need to be educated on why child marriage is awful and violates human rights. They need reevaluate the customs of their cultures and their own values. They absolutely must engage with local communities to change the minds of parents who plan to marry off their daughters young. Child marriage is not the only issue they should address but gender inequality because not only is that a part of the problem but a huge problem by itself. When politicians take an active role in communicating with individual communities they can influence parents more effectively and how people think about child marriage and a girls role in society. More effort from the Nigerien government can change the future of the girls living in Niger and one day end child marriage.
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