Misanet.com / IPS, 4 February - Forty-four percent of Nigerien women, aged 20 to 49, had entered into their first marriage when they were under the age of 15, according to a study by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Comparable figures for the same age group are 34 percent in Chad and 21 percent in Burkina Faso.
Similarly, the Inquiry on Demographics and Health (EDS), conducted in 1998, showed that 47 percent of women aged 25 to 49 married before the age of 15.
Niger has the highest rate of early marriage in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 25-49 age group, 77 percent married before the age of 18. Mali and Burkina Faso, fall behind Niger, with 70 and 62 percent, respectively.
Early marriage is defined as the union of children or adolescents under the age of 18, as spelled out in the UN's Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC), Article 1.
Early marriage has serious consequences for the health of young mothers. According to Dr Idi Nafiou, a gynaecologist-obstetrician at the University of Niamey's Faculty of Health, girls who get married at an early age risk abortions, infertility, cervical cancer and frigidity. "In addition, they risk childbirth complications like the death of the mother and urinary incontinence," he notes.
Fatamoua Sidi, of the department of women's advancement, says "early marriage also has psychosocial consequences", as girls are not prepared to leave their homes and go to live with their in-laws, where parental affection may be lacking.
- From the start, she will find herself confronted with a problem of social integration which could lead her to adopt behaviours which may create tension and conflict with her husband and in-laws, Sidi says. "Such situations can lead to runaways, divorce and rejection."
With only 34.14 percent of its children attending school, Niger has the lowest rate of school enrolment in Africa. Of that, the percentage of girls is only 39.35 percent. "Little by little as you go higher up the educational ladder, the percentage of girls goes down," says Sadatou Boubacar, who is in-charge of girl enrolment at the Ministry of Basic Education.
Niger has the highest rate of girl dropouts. In Niamey, the capital, Boubacar says, the dropout rate is 50 percent. She says: "Marriage gives girls an adult status they're not prepared for and it prevents them from advancing in school."
After a study of Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, The Gambia, Liberia and Cameroon, it was found that Niger was the only country to exclude pregnant girls from secondary schooling, says Nafiou.
Excluding girls from schooling is contrary to the Convention Against All Types of Discrimination Toward Women (CEDEF), she says. In The Gambia, Liberia and Chad girls are permitted to return to school after giving birth. A decision by the Ministry of Education in 1975 stipulated that "girls who enrolled in a degree course may return to their studies after childbirth if they are unmarried".
This law is, unfortunately, not enforced, and girls who give birth never return to school. "It's for these reasons that the Ministry of Education has requested school authorities to ensure that these girls return to their studies after giving birth," says Boubacar.
To combat the practice of early marriage, Amina Abdourahman, of the department of human rights and social affairs, has suggested that marriage age be raised to 18 to conform to international law.
Nigerien Civil Code says "men under the age of 18 and women under the age of 15, are ineligible to marry". Early marriage in Niger, as in many African countries, is based on religious and traditional values. Ninety-five percent of Niger's population is Muslim.
The Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Nigerien officials and UNICEF are involved in combating the practice of early marriage, which is a growing phenomenon in this west African country. The groups met at Maradi, 750 kilometres Northeast of Niamey, in January.
Amirou Garba Sidikou, secretary general of the Association of Traditional Chiefs believes that through intense public information and awareness campaigns they will be able to end early marriage. "Our organisation is committed to highlight the damaging effects of early marriage and we will monitor the strict enforcement of laws which regulate marriage in Niger," she says.
By Saidou Arji, IPS