Photo credit: UN | Marco Dormino
Child marriage rates
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18
* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)
What's the child marriage rate? How big of an issue is child marriage?
Niger has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world and the 13th highest absolute number of women married or in a union before the age of 18 globally – 745,000.
6% of boys in Niger are married before the age of 18.
Child marriage is most prevalent in Maradi (where 89% of women aged 20-24 year were already married by age 18), Zinder (87%), Diffa (82%) and Tahoua (76%). Girls as young as 10 years in some regions are married, and after the age of 25 only a handful of young women are unmarried.
Child marriage is more prevalent among the Hausa people.
A 2017 World Bank/ICRW study estimated that ending child marriage in Niger could generated more than USD 188 million in additional gains and productivity.
Are there country-specific drivers of child marriage in this country?
Niger is the last-ranking country in the Human Development Index. More than 3.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance due to food shortages. In addition, the situation in Niger has worsened in recent years, due to escalating violence that has spread across some West and Central African countries. Clashes between government forces and armed groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda compromised the education and health systems, and forced thousands to flee their homes. This has led to increased rates of school dropouts and violence against women and girls, including child marriage.
Child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that women and girls are somehow inferior to men and boys. It is also exacerbated by:
- Violence against girls: Plan International found in 2018 that in the region of Niger most affected by the Lake Chad Basin crisis – Diffa – child marriage rates are as high as 89%. Marriage is seen as a protective mechanism for daughters against potential predators in a context of insecurity and widespread violence, including sexual violence against women and girls.
- Displacement: In January 2020, there were more than 221,000 refugees (mainly from Nigeria) and 196,000 internally displaced people in Niger. In the refugee camps concentrated in the Southern part of the country, girls are usually married off to much older men who in some circumstances leave their child brides behind in pursuit of opportunities outside the region or country. The initial idea of child marriage as a “protective mechanism” in a context with limited options for girls becomes irrelevant as a large number of girls once married are then abandoned with children and are again left vulnerable.
- Poverty: Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Food shortages, a harsh natural environment and frequent droughts drive some families to marry off their daughters to men of wealth as a survival tactic, and in the hope of increasing their economic and social prosperity. Child marriage has also reportedly been used by families to “settle debts”. However, there are still high prevalence rates of child marriage even within the richest households (51%), indicating that household wealth is only one factor contributing to child marriage in Niger.
- Gender norms: The primary role of girls in Niger is to become wives and mothers. They have little say in decisions that affect them, both on the lead up to and during marriages. Child brides are judged on how respectful and obedient they are, how well they care for their mother-in-law and how they treat their husbands.
- Level of education: 84% of women aged 20-24 with no education and 67% with only primary education were married at age 18, compared to 32% of women with secondary education or higher. Many girls drop out of school or are excluded due to an unsafe environment. This places them at heightened risk of marrying young due to limited alternative options.
- Harmful traditional practices: Arranged marriages in Niger are very common. Frequently, the girl has no idea who the prospective husband is and the arrangement is made between the parents of the girl and the prospective husband or his parents. The payment of bride price is an essential part of marriage.
- Custom and Religion: Certain Islamic interpretations are being used to justify child marriage in Niger and resist legislative and policy changes. Customary and Sharia (Islamic law) have a very strong influence in Niger, including in the process of marriage. Over 90% of Nigeriens are Muslim and the majority live in rural areas. Many families chose to marry their children under customary or religious law, in part because the girl’s age is not requested. Determining children’s ages is a major problem due to the paucity of birth registrations.
- Family honour: Child marriage is perceived as a means to protect a girl’s dignity and preserve her virginity. The fear of dishonour from pregnancy outside of marriage is aggravated by the high levels of sexual violence against women and girls in the country. In certain areas, including rural Marake, some people reportedly believe that girls should be married before their first period, as bloodstained clothing may be perceived as loss of virginity which brings shame to families.
- Rural context: Although child marriage rates are high throughout the country, 80% of women aged 20-24 reside in rural areas of Niger and they are particularly at risk of child marriage. 6% of women aged 20-24 living in rural areas were married by 18, compared to 43.5% in urban areas.
- Polygamy: Child brides in Niger are most likely to be second, third or fourth wives, as younger brides are considered more attractive and obedient. The practice of wahaya involves the purchase of one or more girls, usually of slave descent, under the guise of a “fifth wife”. In Niger, a man can legally have up to four legal wives and then any number of “fifth wives”, who have a different status closer to that of a domestic and sexual slave. Many fifth wives have been trafficked as young girls from rural regions across West Africa to the houses of richer, older, urban males. This was highlighted as a form of slavery by the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery in 2015.
Social status: Married girls are said to enjoy a certain level of respect within society they cannot achieve if unmarried, regardless of how successful they may become professionally.
What has this country committed to?
Niger has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. In its 2018 National Voluntary Review at the High Level Political Forum (the mechanism through which countries report progress in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals), Niger reported on some of the changes in rates of child marriage and legislative reforms related to the legal age of marriage.
Nigeria co-sponsored the 2018 UN General Assembly resolutions on child, early and forced marriage. Nigeria also signed a joint statement at the 2014 Human Rights Council calling for a resolution on child marriage.
Niger ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18, and acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1999, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.
During its 2017 review, the CEDAW Committee raised concerns about displaced girls who are at risk of child marriage. It recommended that the government collect data on incidences of child marriage, specifically criminalise the practice of wahaya, provide training for judges, prosecutors and the police to ensure perpetrators of child marriage are effectively punished, and develop and implement a national plan of action to combat child marriage.
In 2018, the Child Rights Committee expressed deep concerns about the overwhelming number of marriages concluded through customary law, and that the statutory laws establish the minimum age of marriage for girls at 15 years. The Committee urged Niger to regulate its customary laws and practices and to revise its statutory laws to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 years, as well as develop awareness-raising campaigns and programmes on the harmful effects of child marriage.
During Niger’s 2016 Universal Periodic Review, concerns were raised about persistently high rates of child marriage and insufficient protection of migrants and refugees from smugglers and human traffickers. Niger supported recommendations to adopt a Family Law to protect girls from child marriage, increase the minimum legal age for marriage to 18 and implement a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the practice.
In 1999 Niger ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, including Article 21 regarding the prohibition of child marriage.
In 2004 Niger signed, but has not yet ratified, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, including Article 6 which sets the minimum age for marriage as 18.
In 2014 Niger launched the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage under the theme “Obstetric fistula: Zero tolerance!”
As a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Niger has adopted the Strategic Framework for Strengthening National Child Protection Systems under which protecting children from marriage is a priority. In June 2019, the ECOWAS Heads of State endorsed the ECOWAS Child Policy and Strategic Action Plan and the 2019-2030 Roadmap on prevention and response to child marriage.
In addition, in July 2019, the ECOWAS First Ladies signed the “The Niamey Declaration: Call to End Child Marriage and to promote the Education and empowerment of Girls”, calling Member States to initiate legislative, institutional and budgetary reforms to implement the Roadmap.
Niger is one of the countries where the Spotlight Initiative (a global, multi-year partnership between European Union and United Nations) is supporting efforts to end all forms of sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls.
Niger is a partner country of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
What is the government doing to address this at the national level?
Gender inequality and child marriage remain taboo and are highly politicised in Niger. Many initiatives taken to end the practice are blocked by specific social groups or religious leaders. However, the situation has improved in recent years. As reported by UN Women, the President Issoufou Mahamadou, declared in 2017 that he would no longer tolerate child marriage in the country. But this commitment is yet to be formalised since the bill to raise the minimum age for marriage is still being debated.
Niger is a focus country of the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, a multi-donor, multi-stakeholder programme working across 12 countries over four years. In 2018, as part of the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme 159 village committees were set up (bringing the total number of villages with committees to 575 since 2015), where the community was able to attend one-year educational sessions on child marriage and children’s rights. All the communities made a public declaration of the abandonment of harmful traditional practices against women and children, especially child marriage, and developed action plans.
In 2018, a costed National Action Plan (NAP) to End Child Marriage was developed. The process was led by the National Coordinating Committee, established in 2016 by the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Child Protection, with technical support and funding from the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme. However, as of 2020 there is limited information on the implementation of the National Action Plan.
As a follow up to the launch of the African Union Campaign to Child Marriage in 2014, Niger hosted a First Ladies Forum on child marriage in 2017, which was attended by First Ladies from West African states. In 2019, Niger hosted the African Union Summit, where the ECOWAS First Ladies renewed their commitment to prioritise child marriage in the region.
Other policy initiatives addressing child marriage in Niger include:
- The National Strategy for the Prevention and Management of Gender-based Violence and its related action plan: it includes one strategic pillar which addresses child marriage and an action plan for the reduction of early pregnancies.
- The National Strategy on Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancies: it calls for a reduction in child marriages from 76.3% in 2012 to 60% in 2020.
- The Economic and Social Development Plan (2017-2021): it makes girls’ education one of its priorities, with a view to reduce child marriage.
- The National Action Plan on the Promotion of Interventions for Adolescents (2016-2019): launched in February 2015, it covered issues of child marriage and other harmful traditional practices.
The UNFPA programme Action for Adolescent Girls was launched in 2013 and worked with the government to tackle the causes and effects of child marriage. The programme provided married and unmarried girls with life skills, sexual and reproductive health information and birth certificates.
What is the minimum legal framework around marriage?
Under the Civil Code 1993 the minimum legal age of marriage is 15 years for girls and 18 years for boys. However minors can be married before those ages with parental consent, and the President may grant age exemptions for serious reasons.
However it is worth noting that the majority of unions take place under customary law.
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* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)
Members In Niger
- Actions pour le Développement Intégré à la base (ADI)
- Association des Femmes Africaines face au SIDA (SWAA/Niger)
- Association des Femmes Juristes du Niger (AFJN)
- Association Nigérienne des Educateurs pour le Développement (ANED)
- Association Nigérienne pour le Bien-Etre Familial (ANBEF)
- Cercle de Réflexion et d’Action pour un Développement Innovent (CERCLE-DEV)
- Cinéma Numérique Ambulant (CNA Niger)
- Coalition des ONG Africaines en Faveur des Enfants (CONAFE-Niger)
- Coalition des Organisations Nigériennes des Droits de l’Enfant (CONIDE)
- Comité Nigérien sur les Pratiques Traditionnelles ayant Effet sur la Santé des Femmes et des Enfants (CONIPRAT)
- Coordination d’Actions Multisectorielles pour un Développement Durable (CAM DED)
- Ecole, parrainage & actions de développement (EPAD)
- Femmes, Actions et Développement (ONG FAD)
- ONG de Lutte contre la Drogue, la Corruption et la Traite des Personnes (ONG ADDENA)
- ONG Mieux Vivre avec le Handicap (ONG MVH)
- Plan International
- Santé de la Reproduction pour une Maternité Sans Risque (SRMSR-DIMOL)
- SongES Niger
- Soutien à l’Alphabétisation à la Santé et à l’Artisanat au Niger (SALSANI)