(Jan. 28, 2009) According to the United Nations, Niger is the country with the highest incidence in the world of early marriages, with many married by age 12 and 80 percent married before age 18. (Niger: Early Marriage – From Rural Custom to Urban Business, IRIN, Jan. 16, 2009, available at http://allafrica.com/stories/200901160644.html.) The current minimum age at which it is legal for a girl in Niger to marry is 15; a proposal has been made to raise that to 18. The proposal is motivated in part by a desire to check trafficking in young girls.
What was once a village custom has become a cross-border business that ends in abuse, according to Action Against the Use of Child Workers (AFETEN), a local non-profit organization. AFETEN points out that early, forced marriages had long been found in traditional areas of southern Niger, but since the 1990s families in the extremely poor, northern region of the country have been “selling” their daughters for marriage to men from across the borders. According to Moutari Mamane, AFETEN's regional coordinator, the rate of such transactions has increased recently. Mamane added:
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. … Parents don't realise what their daughter can go through in the country she is sent to … All too often, they fall prey to sexual exploitation, violence and all kinds of mistreatment. (Id.)
Judge Seyna Saidou of Agadez, Niger, has expressed doubt that even changing the legal marriage age will have much impact. “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.” (Id.)
Mamane has said that AFETEN is working with traditional chiefs and imams, as well as with 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.” (Id.)