Child brides are big business in the poverty stricken country of Niger, where daughters as young as nine years old are sold to wealthy Muslim men from neighboring Nigeria.
BBC reports the marriage of young girls is a social norm in Niger, and given explicit backing by religious leaders.
Islamic law allows marriage not by age, but by physical maturity, which is supposedly attained once a girl reaches the age of puberty.
When the government of Niger tried to introduce laws to give more protection to girls, it faced strong opposition from prominent clerics in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.
At a Koranic school in Agadez, Sheikh Abbas Yahaya told the BBC that marriage should depend on the physical maturity of the couple:
“It depends on the body of the girl and the man’s body. If the two are mature the marriage can be OK also, because in Islamic religion even at age nine years, if the girl is in the right condition she can be able to get married.”
Wealthy men from neighbouring Nigeria sometimes pay thousands of dollars for child brides – the price varying according to the girl’s age and beauty.
Child brides often suffer unspeakable emotional and physical abuse. Often the girls suffer from fistula – a gynaecological condition occurring in girls giving birth before they are physically mature. The condition can lead to severe infection, incontinence and a lifetime of pain, shame and exile.
Niger has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. Three out of four girls marry before their 18th birthday, and about 24% of girls will be married by the time they are 15. Families receive a “bride price” in return for their daughter’s hand in marriage, and a girl married off is one less mouth to feed in a family that often lacks food security.