Agadez — In a country with the world's highest incidence of early marriage according to the UN, child rights activists say the phenomenon is changing in Niger from a village tradition to a cross- border business transaction.
Early and forced marriage in Niger has largely been confined to rural areas in the south, but according to the local non-profit Action Against The Use of Child Workers (AFETEN), families in the north are "selling" their daughters to men from neighbouring countries to lift themselves out of urban poverty.
The inhospitable desert north has some of the country's highest rates of extreme poverty.
"It's been going on since the 1990s, but recently it's been getting a lot worse," AFETEN's regional coordinator Moutari Mamane told IRIN. "Poverty is at the root of the problem, families are worse off now, with the food crisis and everything. These marriages are like sales, trafficking. It's a form of prostitution."
At the intersection of sub-Saharan and northern Africa, Niger's mountainous desert north has long been a strategic zone for business and, increasingly, illegal immigration, according to authorities.
A phone company employee in the northern Niger business hub of Agadez who gave his name as Alassane told IRIN he has seen local businesses arranging marriages for men from neighbouring Nigeria or northern African countries. "They are like matrimonial agencies. There's a guy who looks for the girls and sends clients their photo via the Internet. The men send gifts for the girl and then the fixer talks to the family to arrange the marriage.
"Unemployed parents sell their daughters to strangers...and most often the girls are minors and still in school," he added.
According to local human rights organisations, Tuareg girls in urban areas are often targeted because of their beauty.
The more beautiful and young a girl is, the higher the price.
The minimum legal age for a girl to marry in Niger is 15 years old.
A law has been proposed to change the legal marrying age to 18, but has yet to be adopted. But even were it to be adopted, Agadez judge Seyna Saidou told IRIN local customs often trump laws in Niger. "The problem with marriage in Niger is that it's governed by customs, which allow parents to marry their girls to whomever they want and at any age."
Girls are frequently married off by age 12, with four out of five married before the age of eighteen, according to the UN.
An Agadez parent who gave her name as Tounfana told IRIN for her, early marriage avoids potential family dishonour. "I'd rather marry my daughters to whomever rather than to have them picking up unwanted pregnancies in the streets of Agadez. Marriage is the 'sunna' [practice] of the Prophet Mohamed. "
Some Muslims in Niger point to the prophet marrying off his nine-year-old daughter to show how young marriage is pious, according to UNICEF.
In a region where families' ties date back generations, cross-border marriages to outsiders have often turned abusive for Niger's young brides.
"Parents don't realise what their daughter can go through in the country she is sent to," said NGO AFETEN's Mamane. "All too often, they fall prey to sexual exploitation, violence and all kinds of mistreatment."
Aicha is 17 and lives in Agadez with her newborn baby. She told IRIN she was 15 when she was married off to a man in Kaduna, Nigeria. "It was hell. My husband was sex- obsessed and chased after so many women. He hid the fact he already had two wives. Then, when I was pregnant, he came back to Agadez to take a fourth wife - Tuareg, like me."
Health officials have linked early marriage to complications in pregnancy, including the debilitating gynaecological condition of fistula. Niger's youngest fistula victims have reported abandonment and social ostracism.
Knowledge is power
Women with seven or more years of education marry on average four years later and have less children than those with no formal schooling, according to UNICEF.
Despite recent gains in getting girls to stay in school longer through government and UNICEF-led programmes, only one in two girls in Niger enrol in primary school, with only one in five continuing on to secondary school. By adulthood, only 18 per cent of women can read, according to the UN.
AFETEN's Mamane told IRIN it is critical to raise awareness among local leaders about the danger of Niger's growing international marriage market.
"We're working with traditional chiefs and imams, alongside human rights groups, to show how serious this issue is. It's commercial exploitation of children and we need to fight for it to stop."
Read about similar trends in Mauritania and Nigeria.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]