MARADI, Niger (July 18, 2012) — In the small village of Madarounfa, in eastern Niger, Sani Barmo, 81, and his second wife Hadisa Abdou, 40, were preparing for their daughter Zahara’s wedding. She is 12 and a half years old.
The groom-to-be’s family sent presents, including clothing, jewelry, perfume and money, to Zahara for accepting their son’s proposal. The in-laws had also paid Zahara’s parents FCFA 130,000 (approximately $245) in dowry. The two families had set a wedding date, and Mr. and Mrs. Barmo were making arrangements for the ceremony.
Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world. One in three girls is married before the age of 15, and 75% of women aged 20 to 24 are married before age 18. Zahara left school when she was nine, and she never returned. The only future Barmo saw for his daughter was to marry her off.
“Zahara was not performing well on her studies despite all the money I spent on uniforms and school supplies, so I had to take her out of school,” Barmo said. “When four boys approached Zahara, I decided to get her married.”
While preparations were underway for Zahara’s wedding, the chief of Madarounfa was made aware of the case by community members. The chief immediately passed the information on to local court officials.
A few days later, Barmo and Zahara appeared in court. The judge told Barmo that his decision to marry off Zahara at 12 years old was not only a violation of her rights—and the law—but also would compromise her health, development and future.
“The judge told me if I marry Zahara off before she is old enough to bear a child, I can lose my daughter and my grandchild, or Zahara can be exposed to serious health risks such as obstetric fistula,” said Barmo. “The judge and I discussed in detail the dangers of early motherhood, including the psychological and the mental damage it entails. And I am happy that this marriage is cancelled because I want a better future for Zahara.”
Maimouna Abdou, Regional Director of the UNICEF-supported government system that deals with protection of children and promotion of women’s rights, said that child marriages remain the norm in many communities for reasons related to poverty, culture and lack of access to education. Parents are worried that their adolescent girls could be exposed to out-of-wedlock pregnancies—considered a dishonor to their families.
But thanks to the efforts being made by the government and UNICEF, including awareness creation and education programs targeted at those in positions of influence, parents and young girls, attitudes towards early child marriage have started to change.
The program, which currently covers 100 villages in four regions nationwide, involves selecting and training animators to engage their communities in a dialogue to bring about behavioral and social change. Once a week, the animators meet with the community and facilitate discussions about girls' education, child marriage, child rights, reproductive health and good hygiene practices.
Local child protection committees work closely with the animators and provide counseling and other support to victims of forced and child marriages. They also sensitize parents and girls about the psychological, health and developmental risks associated with child marriage and other impacts on girls and society.
Eradicating the practice of child marriage will require a long-term effort. “We know that there are child marriages conducted secretly,” said Saidou Oumarou, Departmental Director of the promotion of women’s rights and child protection in Madarounfa. “We have a big challenge ahead. “
The challenge includes overcoming the strong social pressures that affect young girls, as well. “I do not want to go back to school,” said Zahara. “I want to get married. All my three friends have already married and moved to the other village.”
UNICEF and partners understand that it takes commitment, coordinated effort, local ownership, and a holistic approach involving all actors—government, donors, civil societies, communities, and religious and traditional leaders—to address child marriage, a practice that has been embedded in cultures for generations.