With roughly one out of two girls marrying before age 15, some as young as 7, Niger has the world’s highest rate of childhood marriage.
Aid workers are concerned that in the hunger-stricken Sahel region of West Africa, parents would treat childhood marriage as the only feasible solution to help their family survive. They might marry off their daughters even earlier for the dowries they fetch, including animals and cash.
“The fear is, if the food crisis continues, that more parents will use marriage as a survival strategy and that we’ll see more girls married before the age of 15,” said Djanabou Mahonde, the head of child protection at UNICEF. Although parents have been arrested and imprisoned under laws banning unions before age 15, early marriages remain widely accepted by families across the country because of high poverty and illiteracy rates, ancient tribal codes, and conservative religious views that wield more influence than government decrees in rural communities.
On average, every woman has more than seven children, the highest fertility rate in the world. Half of these mothers are younger than 15 years old. The nation's population is expected to grow to 59 million in 2050 from 17 million today. There are high risks of abuse in childhood marriage; besides rape, HIV, and dying in childbirth, there are also strong correlations between childhood marriage and maternal mortality. This crisis has been recognized by the UN Millennium Development Project, which has made reducing it one of its five goals.
A girl who refuses to accept the decision of her parents is considered to be a rebel, and societal pressure makes many of them accept marriage even though they do not really consent - Bob Coen, UNICEF
Early marriage is a hidden crisis. Because the victims are overwhelmingly young, poor and female, their voices are seldom heard by governments. Their concerns do not register on the agendas of global summits. But early marriage is destroying human potential and reinforcing gender inequalities on a global scale. It is subjecting young girls to the elevated health risks that come with early pregnancy and childbirth. It is reinforcing the subordination of women. And it is holding back progress toward the United Nation’s 2015 goal of universal primary education. Without educating girls who are not in school today and preventing them from marrying, we cannot ever hope to meet the Millennium Development Goals", said Gordon Brown on Reuters.
The project aims to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters by 2015, a target unlikely to be met. It’s not an easy problem to address childhood marriage. Poverty and sexual-related justifications aren’t enough; there is also lack of educational opportunities for girls, and traditional notions about the role of women and girls as wives and mothers persist.