Even though child marriage is a violation of human rights, it remains incredibly common worldwide, with 1 in 5 girls globally being married before they reach 18. Child marriage refers to the marital union of a child, either to an adult or to another child, and according to UNICEF, it "threatens the lives, well-being, and futures of girls around the world." 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was projected that more than 100 million girls would be married before their 18th birthday in the next decade. Now, due to the pandemic, it's believed that up to 10 million more girls are at risk of becoming child brides. 

Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with six of the world’s 10 countries where the practice is most common situated in West and Central Africa, including Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea. In all six of these countries, more than half of girls are married before 18. 

Why Is Child Marriage So Prevalent in West Africa?

A 2018 UNICEF survey showed that rural areas and poor communities have higher rates of child marriages than rich or urban communities. This remains true across Central and West Africa, where child marriage is more than twice as common in rural areas compared to urban areas. Meanwhile, it's over three times more common among the poorest wealth quintile compared to the richest. 

According to a 2015 survey by Plan International on child marriage in Asia, severe poverty, extreme gender inequality, inadequate access of girls to quality education, a lack of economic empowerment, and poor health and legal services were the “primary reasons for the high rates of child marriage.” 

Similarly in West Africa, reasons for child marriages range from building family and communal ties, to helping relieve household poverty through dowry payments, to, with one member of the household joining another family, having "one less mouth to feed." 

Alongside the above reasons, according to research by Plan International, another significant driving factor behind child marriage is a "fear of shame and stigma" connected to pregnancy outside of marriage. 

International nonprofit Girls Not Brides also found that in the region, “child marriage laws are not always widely known, understood, or upheld” by members of the community. Even when girls impacted by child marriage are aware of legislation, Girls Not Brides reported that a lack of trust in police and justice systems can limit accountability and put girls off reporting their case due to worry about backlash from their family or community, and the stigma of escaping a marriage.

4 Key Facts About Child Marriage in West and Central Africa

  • Across West and Central Africa, 4 in 10 (41%) of girls are married before they reach 18 years old. 
  • The West African country Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, with about 76% of girls married before 18 — and 28% married before 15. 
  • Nigeria, as the region's most populous country, is home to the highest number of child brides — 22 million, or 40% of all child brides in the region.
  • As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 10 million more girls are at risk of child marriage. 

How Does Child Marriage Impact Women & Girls Globally?

Child marriage is deeply entrenched in gender inequality and disproportionately affects girls, with UNICEF highlighting that six times more girls are impacted than boys.

Child marriage threatens the well-being and health of affected girls, depriving them of a regular childhood. According to UNICEF, child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence particularly those with adult spouses —and can also force girls to drop out of school. These children are robbed of their right to an education and the opportunity to decide what they want for themselves in the future. Their economic and health status is adversely affected, often further leading to a similar generational ripple effect on their own children. 

Child brides often face childbirth and pregnancy complications because their bodies are not yet fully developed and ready for them to give birth, resulting in both their and their infant's lives being put at risk. 

How Does Eradicating Child Marriage Relate to Ending Global Poverty?

Undoubtedly, child marriage does a lot of harm to the health, well-being, and future of girls and young women across the globe. It also poses a big threat to the development and prosperity of countries most affected by the harmful tradition.

Child marriage significantly hampers several of the United Nations’ Global Goals, which work together in the mission to end extreme poverty globally. These include Goal 2 for zero hunger, with girls subjected to poverty, increased food insecurity, and malnutrition; as well as Goal 3 for health and well-being, Goal 4 for education, and Goal 5 for gender equality.

How Can We All Take Action Against Child Marriage?

In West Africa, child marriages take different forms across different countries and communities. In Niger, for instance, according to Girls Not Brides, “many girls have a say in who they marry and are generally not coerced — although their opportunities are limited. Their families do not necessarily benefit financially from the marriage.” 

Whereas in Mali, a girl to be married is only informed after negotiations have taken place; while in Senegal, some girls self-arrange their marriage to gain independence.

So to fully address the issue, it is crucial for all initiatives locally or nationally to be tailored to the prevailing needs of the targeted regions. Governments should develop comprehensive national action plans to end child marriage, but communities too also have a vital role to play in combating the issue. 

According to a recent "Ending Child Marriage in Africa" brief by Girls Not Brides, to combat child marriage, governments and communities need to: 

  • Empower girls to develop skills, and know their values and rights.  
  • Mobilise families and communities as agents of change, by raising awareness of the challenges of child marriage and the  important roles girls and women play in society. 
  • Provide adequate health, education, justice, and other services, to remove the structural barriers that push girls into child marriage and prevent them from accessing support within marriage. 
  • Provide an enabling legal and policy framework, including legislation that sets 18 as the minimum age for marriage and removes legal loopholes related to parental consent or customary laws. 

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while launching the global 16 Days of Activism campaign to end gender-based violence in 2008, said: "There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures, and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable."

All Global Citizens, especially men and boys, governments, and organizations around the world can take much-needed action to protect and promote the rights of girls and young women globally. Join us and start taking action to demand equity and uplift women and girls around the world, here.

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Why Is Child Marriage So Prevalent in West Africa?

By Gideon Fakomogbon