How young girls in West Africa are helping themselves (and their communities) by changing cultural perspectives on childhood marriage
Posted by Alanna Mitchell
If you are female in the African countries of Niger and Mali, you are more likely to be married as a child than as an adult.
In Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, 76 per cent of girls become brides before they turn 18. In neighbouring Mali, the figure is 61 per cent. In many cases, the girls are only 13, says Ramata Thioune, a senior program specialist with the International Development Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Some are married at 10.
Niger and Mali are not alone. Six of the world’s top 10 countries for early female marriage are in West Africa, Thioune says.
There is one bright spot. A 2017 UNICEF report found that, while still high, the rate of child marriage has dropped by a fifth across West and Central Africa since 1990.
But fast population growth in the same region means that the sheer number of girls is also growing and therefore so is the number of child brides. By 2050, the number of girls under the age of 18 will be 250 million, more than three times as many as in 1990. Even with declining rates of childhood marriage, that’s still a lot of girls married too young.
The physical dangers are well documented, Thioune says. Child brides often become pregnant swiftly. Because they are not necessarily fully grown, rates of maternal and infant death are high. Obstetrical complications are common.
Not only that, but when girls get married so early, they leave school, sharply reducing their ability to earn money throughout their lives. They get left behind economically. So do their families, communities and nations.
What to do about such a complex issue?
A three-year, $1.1-million IDRC-funded project with Women in Law and Development in Africa, (WiLDAF), is trying to address the problem by teaching girls in Niger, Mali and Togo to become their own advocates.
The idea is to tell the girls about their own rights as women and as human beings and enhance their agency. “If we try to empower girls, they will be able to take initiatives and fight against early marriage in their community and their country,” says Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson, coordinator of WiLDAF for West Africa, which manages the project.
The barriers are formidable because the program goes directly to the heart of how women are perceived within their communities. Traditional beliefs dictate that women are made to serve men, Adjamagbo-Johnson says. Marriage is an agreement between two families, often for economic gain, rather than a love match. Because a husband must support his wife and her family, some families see early marriage as a way out of family poverty. Additionally, when a girl marries, the family saves the money it would have paid for her school fees.
Learning about their rights has been transformative for many in the pilot project, Adjamagbo-Johnson says. Girls became excited about the possibilities for them to remain at school, be trained and find work before getting married. It gave them confidence.
They also learned how to figure out which power brokers in the community reinforce the idea that girls should be married young. Often, they are male family members or the father’s older sister. In many cases, they are also the village’s traditional or religious leaders.
Then it’s a question of teaching the girls how to reshape those views. The lessons get repeated over months.
Project leaders in each community taught young girls how to talk to people in positions of power. The girls then went into villages to practice their communication skills, using words and images to argue their case.
Eventually, some of the girls sought meetings with the traditional leaders in their communities to lay out the benefits of later marriage — and got them. Several of the girls attended a high-level meeting in Senegal to outline the case for later marriage and a handful also went to New York City to press their case at a meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
“The fact is that they are doing the work,” says Adjamagbo-Johnson. “And people are listening to them.”