Pandemic threatens progress made against child marriage in Niger

The COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly affecting the everyday lives of girls The COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly affecting the everyday lives of girls: their physical and mental health, their education, and the economic circumstances of their families and communities. Changes like these increase the likelihood of child marriage, and over the next decade, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic worldwide. Questions and answers with Aboubacry Tall, UNICEF Representative a.i. on the situation in Niger. Due to the pandemic, more children are at risk of child marriage. What’s the situation in Niger? Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world. Before the pandemic, already 3 in 4 girls are married before their 18th birthday. In some areas, the rates are even higher: in the region of Maradi, 89% of girls are married as children. In countries facing humanitarian crises like Niger, the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant additional pressure on an already overburdened health and social service delivery systems and exacerbating vulnerabilities in affected populations. For more than two months, the Government has put in place a series of restrictions and social distancing measures including school and mosque closures, movement restrictions, curfew and nationwide state of emergency. During that times, the pandemic has profoundly affected the everyday lives of girls: their physical and mental health, their education, and the economic circumstances of their families and communities. We are still assessing the impact of Covid-19 on children but we all now that changes like these put girls at higher risk of becoming child brides, according to empirical literature and theory on the drivers of child marriage. What are the reasons for child marriage and why do parents decide to marry off their children at a young age? Niger is home to 5 million child brides. Of these, 1.9 million married before age 15. Child marriage persists because of multiple factors including poverty, low levels of education and social norms to which families feel pressured to conform. Poverty is a major driver of child marriage in Niger, bringing with it the hope of economic prosperity and an increase in social status for both girls and their parents. Upholding social and religious traditions, including the fear of dishonour from pregnancy outside of marriage is also a major driver, as the instability caused by civil unrest and natural disasters. The link between education and the prevalence of child marriage is particularly evident in Niger: 81% of women aged 20-24 with no education and 63% with only primary education were married or in union at age 18, compared to only 17% of women with secondary education or higher. Why is the number of children being married increasing due to the pandemic? Restrictions have all led to a drop in economic activity, the loss of livelihoods, and household poverty. The resulting economic insecurity may limit the ability of parents to provide for their children. Worsening household income may cause some adolescents living in especially difficult circumstances to view child marriage as the best option available to them Child marriage can be a boon to a household’s income in communities where a bride price is paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family. Less time in school may also cause families to perceive lower returns to girls’ education We continue to assess the situation but we all now that changes like these put girls at higher risk of becoming child brides. What does early or forced marriage mean for children? This harmful practice denies girls the opportunity to develop to their full potential, with far-reaching ripple effects. Girls who marry are not only robbed of their childhood. They are often socially isolated – cut off from family and friends – and discouraged or prohibited from attending school or finding a job. The pressure to become pregnant once married can be intense, even though girls’ young bodies are not yet ready to give birth. Nor are girls usually equipped with the skills and maturity they need to become good mothers. Early pregnancies put young mothers’ lives at risk and threaten the survival and health of their babies. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are one the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in Niger. Infants of adolescent mothers are also more likely to have low birth weight, which can have a long-term impact on the child’s health and development. Pregnancy also undermines the adolescent girl’s development because it stops her growth and negatively affects her nutritional status. Child marriage has detrimental effects not only on girls and their families. It erodes the well-being and prosperity of whole societies, for generations. Ending child marriage can preserve a girl’s childhood, promote her right to an education, reduce her exposure to violence and abuse, and contribute to breaking cycl

Pandemic threatens progress made against child marriage in Niger

The COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly affecting the everyday lives of girls

The COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly affecting the everyday lives of girls: their physical and mental health, their education, and the economic circumstances of their families and communities. Changes like these increase the likelihood of child marriage, and over the next decade, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic worldwide.

Questions and answers with Aboubacry Tall, UNICEF Representative a.i. on the situation in Niger.

Due to the pandemic, more children are at risk of child marriage. What’s the situation in Niger?

Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world. Before the pandemic, already 3 in 4 girls are married before their 18th birthday. In some areas, the rates are even higher: in the region of Maradi, 89% of girls are married as children.

In countries facing humanitarian crises like Niger, the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant additional pressure on an already overburdened health and social service delivery systems and exacerbating vulnerabilities in affected populations.

For more than two months, the Government has put in place a series of restrictions and social distancing measures including school and mosque closures, movement restrictions, curfew and nationwide state of emergency.

During that times, the pandemic has profoundly affected the everyday lives of girls: their physical and mental health, their education, and the economic circumstances of their families and communities.

We are still assessing the impact of Covid-19 on children but we all now that changes like these put girls at higher risk of becoming child brides, according to empirical literature and theory on the drivers of child marriage.

What are the reasons for child marriage and why do parents decide to marry off their children at a young age?

Niger is home to 5 million child brides. Of these, 1.9 million married before age 15.

Child marriage persists because of multiple factors including poverty, low levels of education and social norms to which families feel pressured to conform.

Poverty is a major driver of child marriage in Niger, bringing with it the hope of economic prosperity and an increase in social status for both girls and their parents.

Upholding social and religious traditions, including the fear of dishonour from pregnancy outside of marriage is also a major driver, as the instability caused by civil unrest and natural disasters.

The link between education and the prevalence of child marriage is particularly evident in Niger: 81% of women aged 20-24 with no education and 63% with only primary education were married or in union at age 18, compared to only 17% of women with secondary education or higher.

Why is the number of children being married increasing due to the pandemic?

Restrictions have all led to a drop in economic activity, the loss of livelihoods, and household poverty. The resulting economic insecurity may limit the ability of parents to provide for their children.

Worsening household income may cause some adolescents living in especially difficult circumstances to view child marriage as the best option available to them

Child marriage can be a boon to a household’s income in communities where a bride price is paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.

Less time in school may also cause families to perceive lower returns to girls’ education

We continue to assess the situation but we all now that changes like these put girls at higher risk of becoming child brides.

What does early or forced marriage mean for children?

This harmful practice denies girls the opportunity to develop to their full potential, with far-reaching ripple effects.

Girls who marry are not only robbed of their childhood. They are often socially isolated – cut off from family and friends – and discouraged or prohibited from attending school or finding a job.

The pressure to become pregnant once married can be intense, even though girls’ young bodies are not yet ready to give birth. Nor are girls usually equipped with the skills and maturity they need to become good mothers.

Early pregnancies put young mothers’ lives at risk and threaten the survival and health of their babies. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are one the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in Niger. Infants of adolescent mothers are also more likely to have low birth weight, which can have a long-term impact on the child’s health and development.

Pregnancy also undermines the adolescent girl’s development because it stops her growth and negatively affects her nutritional status.

Child marriage has detrimental effects not only on girls and their families. It erodes the well-being and prosperity of whole societies, for generations.

Ending child marriage can preserve a girl’s childhood, promote her right to an education, reduce her exposure to violence and abuse, and contribute to breaking cycles of poverty that are passed down from one generation to the next.

Why are girls more affected than boys?

Child marriage is the result of entrenched gender inequality, making girls disproportionately affected by the practice.

While education and poverty can influence child marriage rates, deep-rooted gender norms play a larger part in the likelihood of girls being forced into early marriage as well as choices about their fertility and continued access to education.

In Niger, parental choices are mainly driven by tradition, and gender norms confine girls to a position of obedience and submission to men.

There is a clear division of roles between women and men within marriage. Men are the main providers, both in financial and sexual terms. A man has to serve his wife’s financial and physical needs. Women have to take care of the children and household chores.Women have to obey their husbands in every aspect of life.

Women are primarily valued for their role as procreators and household managers.

In Niger, education for girls is essentially seen as traditional and religious education. The responsibility for this education lies first and foremost in the hands of the family.

In Niger, a girl’s education is mainly conceived of as traditional and religious teaching, to be administered within the home environment. Formal education is less seen as a priority in a girl’s path towards becoming a socially respected woman.

What happens to the children after their marriage?

Young girls who are married are a uniquely vulnerable, though largely invisible group.

They are often required to perform heavy amounts of domestic work, are under pressure to demonstrate their fertility, and are responsible for raising children while they are still children themselves.

Married girls and child mothers have limited power to make decisions, are generally less able to earn income, and are vulnerable to multiple health risks, violence, abuse and exploitation.

Due to the difference in age and maturity with their typically adult partners, child brides are not in a position to effectively discuss contraceptive use; therefore, they face a greater risk of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted and frequent pregnancies.

Early pregnancies put young mothers’ lives at risk and threaten the survival and health of their babies. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are one the leading cause of death among adolescent girls. Infants of adolescent mothers are also more likely to have low birth weight, which can have a long-term impact on the child’s health and development.

Pregnancy also undermines the adolescent girl’s development because it stops her growth and negatively affects her nutritional status.

Child marriage persists because of multiple factors including poverty, low levels of education and social norms to which families feel pressured to conform.

What about violence and sexual exploitation – and how far is this an issue?

Child marriage is internationally recognised in law as a form of gender-based violence. Both are human rights violations.

Child marriage puts girls and women at increased risk of sexual, physical, and psychological violence and related outcomes throughout their lives.

The greater the age difference between girls and their husbands, the more likely they are to experience intimate partner violence.

Men who marry very young girls may hold traditional masculine ideologies, and because of this be more likely to abuse their wives. Child brides are also often given away or sold by families that undervalue women. By the time they marry, young girls may have internalized harmful beliefs. They are more likely, for example, to believe that husbands can be justified in beating their wives.

According to latest studies conducted in Niger, more than 6 in 10 women think that man has reasons to batter his own wife.

We’re talking about a serious human rights violation. And yet, little seems to be done to address child marriage – or not?

Given the strength of the social bonds that bind communities together, the norm that sustains child marriage has proven difficult to unravel. But it cannot withstand the force of collective action and social evolution. Our work is to accelerate its inevitable demise.

Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at all levels. It requires us to understand the complex drivers behind the practice in different contexts and adapt our interventions accordingly.

UNICEF works across sectors to support strategies that address child marriage. We support the development of laws and policies, and work to strengthen systems which make enforcing child marriage prohibition laws more feasible. We also work with communities and adolescent girls to address the social norms that allow child marriage to perpetuate.

Over the past years, thanks to the Global Programme support, more than 115,000 adolescent girls benefitted from child marriage prevention and care interventions.

UNICEF supported the process leading to the institutionalization of child protection committees, a major achievement in addressing child marriage and promoting positive social norms that protect children’s rights.

UNICEF worked to shift social norms on child marriage and gender-based violence by actively involving traditional leaders, media, communities and children themselves. This gives us confidence in the sustainability of interventions.

Much has been achieved, but much more needs to be done.

Putting an end to child marriage is a focus of UNICEF’s work in Niger. Working with communities, families, governments and partners, UNICEF, with the support of the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, helps identify and address the social norms and economic and structural factors that contribute to the persistence of child marriage.

The Global Programme promotes the rights of adolescent girls to avert marriage and pregnancy and enables them to achieve their aspirations through education and alternative pathways. It supports households in demonstrating positive attitudes, empowers girls to direct their own futures, and strengthens the services that allow them to do so. It also addresses the underlying conditions that sustain child marriage, advocating for laws and policies that protect girls' rights while highlighting the importance of using robust data to inform such policies.

The Global Programme is generously supported by the Governments of Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the European Union, as well as Zonta International.