Four things we’ve learned about child marriage in West Africa

© Plan International West Africa

I met a girl called Sadio in the town of Baroueli, Mali. At 18, Sadio was pregnant for the third time, having married a cousin three years earlier. Sadio did not know she would be married until her wedding day. Her cousin was supposed to marry another girl but the bride fled, so Sadio was told to take her place.

Sadio’s story is common in West Africa. In her home country, Mali, 55% of girls marry before 18. In Niger, it is 76% and in Senegal, 33%. More than half of the countries with the highest child marriage rates in the world are in West and Central Africa

Child marriage is a major issue in the region, but there is very little research on it. That is why at Plan International in West & Central Africa we are doing our own. And a new narrative is starting to emerge.

Our researchers visited dozens of communities in Mali, Niger and Senegal. They asked what “childhood”, “adulthood” and “marriage” mean for girls, boys, their parents and their communities. They also explored the role of marriage, why girls marry early, and the associated benefits and risks.

Here is what we learned.

1. FAMILY HONOUR MAY BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MONEY

Contrary to what has long been assumed, family honour is a more decisive factor than money. Girls are expected to avoid relationships with men outside of marriage, and pregnancy outside of marriage typically brings shame on a girl and her family. Virginity is highly regarded and fuels the belief that girls should marry early.

One participant in a focus group in Marake, Niger explained that if a girl has her period for the first time outside her home, bloodstains on her clothes may be confused with loss of virginity. The risk of “tarnishing” the girl’s reputation, and that of the family, is too great. It is enough for families to prefer marriage.

© Vincent Tremeau / Plan International West Africa

2. CHILD MARRIAGE IS LINKED TO EDUCATION– BUT NOT IN THE WAY WE THOUGHT

Previous research suggested that girls were removed from school in order to get married. The reality is more complex. Our report shows that girls are not going to school due to a poor and costly system. Often girls are already out of school by the time they reach puberty. Families may choose marriage when they have no alternatives.

In Niger, when a girl performs well in school her parents – and sometimes the whole community – typically ensure she has everything she needs to stay in school. However in some communities in rural Senegal, marriage is a reason to remove girls from school.

© Vincent Tremeau / Plan International West Africa

3. COMMUNITIES CAN END CHILD MARRIAGE, BUT INTERVENTIONS MUST BE SENSITIVE

Participants were often wary of talking about a practice they do not necessarily see as negative. In some communities, people had clearly been briefed about what to say. In others, community leaders simply refused access to researchers and asked them to find another site.

Attacking a social institution like child marriage without giving an alternative may drive it underground. Communities see marriage as a way to protect girls. Talking about a “harmful traditional practice” can make them defensive. Our research shows that communities are often hostile to human rights based messages but welcome education and health messages.

We also found that child marriage laws are not always widely known, understood or upheld. Lack of trust in the police and justice system limits accountability. Costly justice procedures and corruption may prevent laws from helping girls at risk of child marriage.

When girls are more aware of the legislation than older members of their community, they may feel that reporting their case will make things worse. The stigma of escaping a marriage at a young age is a high social cost for girls to pay.

© Vincent Tremeau / Plan International West Africa

4. CHILD MARRIAGE IS DIFFERENT EVERYWHERE

One thing we have learned in this research is that we cannot generalise about child marriage. Communities that lived next to one another for decades may have different practices, whereas communities in different countries may have similar practices and beliefs.

In Niger, many girls have a say in who they marry and are generally not coerced – although their opportunities are limited. Their families do not necessarily benefit financially from the marriage.

In Mali, however, we found that the bride, her mother and in some cases the groom are informed after the marriage negotiation. In Senegal, some girls self-initiate their marriage to gain independence.

Our findings bring a new perspective on child marriage in West Africa. They show how crucial it is for initiatives to be tailored to the community in order to effectively address child marriage.