The United Nations (UN) statistics suggest that only four out of every 10 girls in Niger are enrolled in primary school and two out of 10 carry on to middle school. The percentage drops radically for high school, where only three out of 100 girls make it that far. Women here are among the worst, if not the worst, in the world thanks largely to a relentless tradition of early marriage, big families and having pregnancies in quick succession, fervently endorsed by the influential Muslim majority.
UN statistics on forced or arranged marriages are alarming. 30% of girls are married before 15 years of age and 75% before 18 years. Even efforts by the UN and rights groups to point out the ravages, notably the damaged bodies of girls not ready to bear babies, have met with fierce resistance. Some clerics have condemned initiatives to hold off wedlock and promote contraception as 'the devil's work brought by the West'. In 2014, several Muslim organizations even threatened to 'block the path' of anyone who 'tried to challenge marriages celebrated in the towns and villages' that are 'considered by feminists as too early'.
Economic reasons are also used to justify the custom in a nation prone to drought, food shortages and malnutrition and where 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, notably in the vast rural zones.
The premature marriages have contributed to Niger's remarkably high birth rate which, at 7.6 children per woman, is one of the world's highest. Niger also has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates.