Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The marriage business

Photo from IRIN/Phuong Tran

Niger has the world's highest rate of child marriage. It used to be a rural tradition but is is fast becoming a cross border business.

The north of the country has some of the highest rates of poverty in Niger, itself one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. In the south, child/forced marriage happens mainly in rural communities but in the north, even in urban areas, families are selling their daughters to men in nearby countries. Matrimonial agencies have been set up to facilitate the "matches". Tuareg girls, like the one in the picture, fetch a higher price because of their beauty. Girls are often married off by the age of 12 even though the legal age is 15, and proposals are in place to raise this to 18.

Early marriage can lead to many different problems, including
  • abuse because of the imbalance of power;
  • complications in pregnancy/child birth;
  • fistula, resulting from the complications during childbirth, and can in turn lead to being outcast and abandoned;
  • a halt to education meaning the girls will always be dependent and subservient;
  • a lack of knowledge and understanding of issues such as birth control or reproductive health with consequences that can increase the HIV Aids rates.
In Nigeria poverty combined with traditional values are again the driving forces for child marriage. Attempts to make under age marriage illegal have come in for some severe criticism. Often the critics cite promiscuity as the reason, believing that the longer a girl is unmarried, the more likely she will become promiscuous. In some places in northern Nigeria, most girls are married by the age of 14 and to much older and usually wealthier men.

In Mauritania, girls as young as six can be married off to men in Gulf states, in a similar pattern to Nigeria's. What once was a rural tradition has become an urban business. The girls are smuggled over the borders by intermediaries or family members.

One girl, now 14, who escaped from a marriage she was forced into at the age of eight, says that she hopes to be able to go to school and play like other girls, as every child should. In 2006, it is estimated that 14 million girls were forced into marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, 14 million girls who lost their childhood.
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