Seventy-five percent of girls in Niger are married before they reach 18; 36% before they reach 15 years old. The “happiest day of their lives” is leaving many Niger child brides mentally and physically traumatized.
Mariama, 13, is told one Thursday morning that she is to be married. She’s a normal teenage girl from Niger and loves school. The news that she is to be a bride reduces Mariama to tears. Later in the week, she will be taken to her new husband.
Mariama says she is scared and angry at her uncle for setting up the marriage. She cries all the time and has stopped eating. “I told my uncle that he needs to be patient. I feel that I’m not ready to have sex with a man. I begged him, please – stop this marriage!”
Mariama’s uncle and mother believe that Mariama must be married because she is no longer in school. But she was forced to drop out of classes because teachers and pupils were teasing her about being a prospective bride.
“I’ve been sad since the first day they told me that I wouldn’t go to school and that I am to get married. I’m not eating as I used to. I can’t sleep as I used to because I keep on thinking about my new situation. I don’t even go outside anymore in the evening with my friends, because I always feel that people are looking at me, you know, as a new bride, you know - seeing my age.”
Like many girls in Niger, Mariama, has no idea who her husband is until she marries him. The men are usually at least ten years older than their brides.
Niger’s law states that the legal age of marriage is 15 for a girl and 18 for a boy, but this is poorly respected; most marriages are conducted according to custom, proceed without the spouses’ consent and are never registered. In rural areas, families sometimes enter into an agreement whereby a young girl (aged between 10 and 12 years) joins her husband’s family under the guardianship of her mother-in-law. A recent study put child marriage in Niger at 36% of girls married under the age of 15 (the legal age for marriage in Niger) and 75% of girls married under the age of 18.
Mariama’s mother Ramatou decided to marry off her daughter because she was offered money.
“The man brought CFA100,000 (approximately $197). When I understood that the girl was not going to school, I called the man and I told him I was ready to give him my daughter to marry because I was afraid that she would get spoilt (a term for a girl who has sex before marriage)."
Ramatou says she would like to see Mariama grow and flourish and go out with her friends. But she is afraid she might fall pregnant outside marriage and therefore become unable to be married.
“I do not have any solution, because I do not have money. If you borrow money, at some moment, you have to give back the money. If I had the means I would have given back the money to the man, so that Mariama could go back to school.”
Plan is working with communities in Niger to increase awareness around child marriage.
In a village supported by Plan since 1999, there are no adolescent brides available to interview. All the girls interviewed are still at school and are very clear and very confident that they will finish their education. If their parents attempt to arrange an early marriage for them, they will complain to the authorities, they state.
In this village, mothers reported that all the adolescent girls know about issues such as menstruation and family planning because of the Plan Community Development Agents, in stark contrast to the other villages where Plan has only recently got involved.