Jenny Morgan
Publication Date

“The research brings a new perspective – that of girls, boys, their parents and their communities – and nuances some of the common assumptions made about why and how child marriage happens in the region.”

This report describes the results of qualitative research conducted by Plan International in West Africa & Central Africa (PLAN WARO) over two years, which seeks to contribute to the ongoing efforts to better understand the drivers of child marriage in West Africa. The research took place in Mali, Niger and Senegal and explored the contextual meanings of concepts such as “childhood”, “adulthood” and “marriage” from the point of view of girls, boys, their parents and other members of the communities where the research took place. In addition, the researchers explored the role and processes of marriage; the reasons for marrying girls early; and the benefits and risks associated with it. This new evidence is designed to inform child marriage interventions and help Plan tailor their approach to the variety of contexts in Mali, Niger, Senegal. It also seeks to help Plan understand why previous actions towards ending the practice have not had the effect that was hoped for.

The research took place in a mix of urban, peri-urban, and rural sites. Researchers organised separate focus group discussions, with between six and ten participants, of unmarried and married girls under 17, boys
(married and unmarried), men aged 18-24 (married and unmarried), women aged 40 and above, and the same for men. Researchers also conducted interviews at local and national levels with  government agencies, community and religious leaders, teachers, and local and international non-governmental organisations.

Questions that were asked by researchers include:

  • Who is a child and when does a child become an adult?
  • Marriage as the marker of adulthood: Who chooses the bride and groom?
  • A marriage for money?
  • What are the benefits people associate with early marriage?
  • Girls having babies: What do people think about the risk?
  • Is the issue of a girl’s honour settled with her marriage?
  • What happens if a young bride can’t sustain her new life?
  • What are the social pressures for not conforming to the practice of early marriage?
  • Educating girls - what’s the relationship with child marriage?
  • What do communities members think could be done to delay the marriage of girls?
  • What is the role of religious leaders?
  • How do communities and community leaders react to external interventions and the law?

The following is a brief outline of some of the findings:

  • Child marriage is perceived by parents as a strategy that protects girls from risks to their and their family’s honour - Efforts to eradicate child marriage need to engage with this reality, and support children and families to find alternative ways of managing the sexual harassment and sexual temptations girls face.
  • Marriage provides a context in which girls can have sex legitimately - Parents recognise the burgeoning sexuality of their daughters, and see marriage as the best way to protect them not only from men  but from their own desires. In situations where  sexual and reproductive health information and services are largely unavailable, efforts to tackle child marriage need to acknowledge the primacy that sex and sexuality play in the decisions families take.
  • Honour and shame are key drivers of child marriage - Honour and shame are powerful driving forces in the communities that marry their daughters when they develop breasts and start to menstruate (or even earlier). Unmarried post-pubescent girls and their parents are looked down on and denigrated, and may be socially isolated. A girl who is not a virgin at marriage, or who has a child out of wedlock, brings shame on herself and her family and risks profound social isolation.
  • Marriage is intended to strengthen family ties and mutual support - in a context of extreme poverty, marriage, it is hoped, increases the chances of survival by creating the possibility for the two families involved to support and assist each other.
  • Child marriage can be prevented by the availability of education - Girls are not necessarily out of school because they need to be married; they are more often out of school because it is inaccessible to them, geographically and through cost.
  • Receipt of dowry may be less significant than previously thought - In Niger in particular, despite the high levels of poverty in the communities where this research took place, child marriage is not necessarily undertaken to reduce the financial burden on the family or augment income through the bride-price. The bride’s family makes significant gifts to the groom’s family, and spends a great deal of the dowry on the household goods the bride will need.
  • The key decision makers on marriage are mostly adult men - Girls and women, even mothers, have very little say on who will marry whom, when, and under what conditions. Marriage is by and large the preserve of adult men, whose engagement is crucial in any effort to tackle the practice.
  • Some girls exercise some agency in choices around marriage though the majority do not - For example, girls in the research communities in Niger were said to be able to decide who they want to marry, and to decline the overtures of suitors (though it appears their parents would only tolerate them doing this twice). However, researchers in Senegal found the vast majority of girls they spoke to regarded marriage as a divine act from which they could not escape. Girls in rural Gueli and Dakateli had no idea that betrothal and child marriage were illegal in Senegal, and had never heard of the rights guaranteed them under the conventions to which the government of Senegal is signatory. Girls in all three countries internalise the system of honour and shame, and accept their place in it.
  • Parents believe they are attentive to the health risks of early pregnancy - parents believe they protect their daughters by marrying them only when their bodies are perceived to be sufficiently developed, not when they reach a particular age.
  • Most marriages are religious and traditional - although married women say they would prefer a civil marriage, to have a contract that would give them and their children inheritance rights.
  • Criminalising child marriage may do more harm than good – the evidence is mixed - Strong legalistic campaigns risk alienating communities and driving child marriage underground, with even further potentially fatal consequences for girls’ health and well-being. But experience also shows how child marriages can be prevented when key stakeholders in a community set their minds to enforcing the legal age of marriage and intervening on behalf of girls.
  • Migration of girls and boys out of villages is a driver of child marriage - in order to prevent migration out of villages, sons may be pushed to marry earlier than would normally be considered acceptable, in the hope they remain in the community, or at least to ensure that a young wife assists her mother-in-law in the household, and bears children. 

Based on the findings, the report makes a series of recommendations. In brief, they are:

  • Empower girls with knowledge, skills and confidence to make their own choices about when and who to marry and have alternatives when faced with the risk of early and forced marriage.
  • Facilitate access to comprehensive, age-appropriate and gender sensitive sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services in order to prevent pre-marital pregnancy and to ensure that married girls can make healthy decisions about their sexuality.
  • Engage in context appropriate and meaningful discussions with men, young men and boys as girls’ SRHR depends heavily on the actions, attitudes and knowledge of boys and men.
  • Target boys and young adults as beneficiaries of development programmes to improve adolescent skills and economic livelihoods.
  • Promote women’s social and economic empowerment to increase women's autonomy, self-esteem and leadership.
  • Engage, educate and mobilise parents, families and community leaders to create an environment where girls and boys grow up free from child, early and forced marriages.
  • Engage young people and ensure they play an active role in advocacy efforts against child, early and forced marriages.
  • Strengthen Community Based Child Protection Mechanisms (CBCPM) to systematically prevent, report and monitor child, early and forced marriages.
  • Support CBOs and local CSOs including women and youth groups to hold the government accountable to their commitments through the signing, ratification and implementation of regional and International human rights frameworks.
  • Realign communication strategies with multi-sectoral programming and build on positive community-led messaging - Currently, communication and awareness raising material is geared towards increasing understanding of the negative health and education consequences of child marriage, as well as international child rights instruments and the family code. An important shift needs to take place between communication strategies that highlight the negative attitudes of girls’, boys’ and families and focus instead on positive and productive messages.

Girls Not Brides website on August 31 2017.