“We, the girls of this region, ask our parents to not give us in marriage at an early age and to not arrange marriages for us.” This bold statement, made by 14-year-old Sahanatou Abdou, was met with a deathly silence from the assembled audience of elders and peers in a village in Niger. They were stunned by her plea. However, it was one that had to be heard.
Niger has a tradition of marrying its girls at an early age. Among nomadic Fulani herders, for example, marriages are sometimes arranged for babies still in the womb. These arrangements, which strengthen ties between families or close friends, allow the children to get to know each other as they grow up herding animals together. Another reason for this tradition is that families feel pregnancies out of wedlock are shameful and they do not want their daughters to bring them dishonour. Early marriage for families in Niger is a matter of family honour.
Although the legal age for marriage for girls is 15, girls in Niger are often married at the age of 12. By the time they are 16, half the girls are married and have had their first child. They might be one of several wives in a polygamous relationship and are thrust into situations beyond their physical and emotional ability to cope.
Changing the status quo has to start with changing attitudes and beliefs that may have been held for as long as people can remember. In Benin, a country bordering with Niger, UNICEF supports local committees to prevent and respond to early marriage where early marriage and trafficking are serious threats to many girls well being.
In one such case in Benin, the village committee cooperated with the police and the local media to respond to an illegal child marriage. Upon learning of the early marriage, the committee lodged a complaint with the authorities. The police arrested the father who arranged the marriage and husband to whom the young girl was married. The regional radio station, Lalo, reinforced the committee’s efforts by broadcasting programmes on children’s rights.
The village committee conducts a wide range of activities: helping girls attend maternity hospitals to have safe births in cases of early pregnancy; raising awareness of the need for birth registration; enroling and keeping all children in school; preventing sexual and all other forms of child abuse; and helping reintegrate children who have been trafficked.
It is the village committee’s responsibility to spread messages on children’s rights throughout the community and help change harmful attitudes, customs and practices that result in harm to children.
In Niger, the brave young girls’ words were met with crucial support from a member of the committee of elders. “The girls are right. If this is what they expect from us, we’ll go along with them. From now on, none of the girls in our villages will be given in marriage before the age of 17 or 18, and no girl will be forced into marriage.”