A few months ago, the Spotlight Initiative shared a story of two young girls in Niger – Olabisi, 17, and Aminata, 18 who reached out to their village’s child protection committee to stop a friend from getting married at an early age. Established by the government of Niger in 2019 to curtail child marriage, these committees include members of the community, from health care workers to schoolteachers, religious leaders, and advocates like Olabisi and Aminata who work tirelessly to convince families not to marry their young girls.
While their efforts have been successful, thousands of girls across Niger are still forced into early marriage, especially in rural areas with higher poverty rates and lower education levels. As a result, these girls are deprived of their childhood and are more likely to drop out of school because of pregnancy, without being given a fair chance to live healthier, more productive lives.
Changing mindsets starts with communities in the lead
Niger has one of the highest fertility rates in the world with an average of 6.82 births per woman. Combating child marriage and empowering girls can reduce unintended pregnancies and school dropout rates which could increase GDP per capita by more than one-fifth by 2030. As a response, in 2019, the government of Niger, embarked on a series of reforms – including the establishment of child protection committees – to accelerate the demographic transition and promote gender equality and economic growth.
I had the privilege to support the government of Niger during the reform process and saw in action how change can impact girls’ lives. Through my legal research and the organization of broad stakeholder consultations, country-driven gender reforms were identified with the government and technical partners, which led to high-level policy dialogue and a series of actions to support reforms.
A key lesson learned in this process is that Through sharing information on the harmful consequences of early marriage and sexual and reproductive health, these influencers, who are members of child protection committees have been successful in empowering families to find common solutions.
Ensuring that these committees are adequately supported and financed is also important. The World Bank’s flagship Sahel Women's Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) project is currently financing the implementation of 50 Child Protection Committees in Tillabéri, Dosso, Tahoua, Maradi, and Zinder.
Protecting women and girls through legal reforms
Child protection committees are only one step in Niger’s longer-term commitment to design and adopt more foundational policies for protecting and empowering women and girls. During this process, it is crucial to follow a comprehensive approach that also enables the integration of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) into policies and address gender-blind harmful laws and norms.
With support from the World Bank, the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents (GFF), UNICEF, UNFPA, Care International, Plan International and Save the Children, and others, the government of Niger reformed its legal framework to allow married adolescent girls access family planning services without being accompanied by a parent or husband. More recently, to reduce unintended pregnancies, secondary school girls are now allowed to access school health clubs to receive comprehensive reproductive health classes offering objective information and scientific knowledge about adolescent reproductive health. These classes enable adolescent girls to access information to understand their health and bodies, such as risks of teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, AIDS, hepatitis, and cervical cancer. They also teach girls about gender-based violence including child marriage, promote preventive behaviors and foster healthy and respectful relationships.
Ensuring partner alignment and sustainability
Protecting and empowering women and girls will put Niger and many other African countries on a path of social and economic transformation. It is a long-term process that requires coordination of all partners and building coalitions that catalyze broad-based support. While government commitment is the key driver of reforms, other stakeholders such as civil society organizations, local women’s groups, and the private sector are also strong advocates for change.
For example, through country stakeholder platforms supported by the GFF, women, youth networks and CSOs in Niger are already engaging with communities on health promotion, and national gender experts are integrating in-depth knowledge on social norms and barriers into country investment cases for women, children, and adolescents. As part of key actions included in its Gender Roadmap, the GFF also plans to support other countries such as Benin, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire. To ensure sustainability, Niger’s efforts will be financed by a 15-year multiphase program supported by the World Bank and the GFF that focuses on innovative nutrition and health interventions to improve equity and boost girls’ and women’s empowerment.
human capital agenda forward and spurring sustainable economic growth. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still disrupting health and educations systems and bringing further financial hardship on communities, the incidence of child marriage is likely to increase.a central tenet of moving the
Protecting the right to health and education of adolescent girls now is more important than ever. Niger’s leadership can serve as an inspiration for other countries in their efforts to recover fast from the crisis and build more resilient and equitable economies.