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Child marriage in Africa

A practice that is hard to eradicate

The economist–  IN A dusty village in southern Niger, Fatia holds her daughter close to her breast, smiling, though the baby looks much too large for her. Four years ago she married at the age of 16, she reckons, but she may have been younger. Since then she has had two children.

Three out of four girls in Niger are married before they are 18, giving this poor west African country the world’s highest rate of child marriage. The World Bank says it is one of only a very small number to have seen no reduction in recent years; the rate has even risen slightly. The country’s minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 15, but some brides are as young as nine.

Across Africa child marriage stubbornly persists. Of the roughly 700m women living today who were married before they were 18, 125m are African. Among poor rural families like Fatia’s the rate has not budged since 1990. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that, on current trends, almost half the world’s child brides by 2050 will be African.

But some countries have shown they can keep young girls out of wedlock. In Ethiopia, once among Africa’s top five countries for child marriage, the practice has dropped by a third in the past decade, the world’s sharpest decline, says the World Bank. The government wants to eradicate child marriage entirely by 2025.

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Ethiopia offers lessons for other African countries. For one thing, it shows that in religious societies you must win over imams and priests. Guday Emirie of Addis Ababa University notes that in one district a local priest, having been publicly shamed for marrying off his own daughter when she was a child, has since been preaching against the practice. It has now been eliminated in his district. Conservative imams in Niger, by contrast, often invoke the Prophet’s marriage to a young girl, according to tradition.

After a decade of strong economic growth, Ethiopia’s poverty rate is now half that in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. Many of its people, says Lakshmi Sundaram of Girls Not Brides, an NGO, believe that “child marriage is a way of reducing the number of mouths to feed”, as the bride moves in with another family.

Education is even more vital. “You generally don’t find a child bride in school,” notes a UNICEF expert in Ethiopia. Its government spends more on education as a proportion of its budget than other African countries. More than a third of its girls, a big increase, enrol in secondary schools. In Niger the figure is less than a fifth.

Curbing child marriage could lower fertility rates by about a tenth in countries like Niger and Ethiopia. Doing so would immeasurably improve the lives of women like Fatia. On her wedding night, she says she begged her husband not to force himself on her. “He was bigger than me. It hurt too much,” she says, looking down at her daughter.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Growing up too early”
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