When I arrived in Maradi, a sleepy town in southern Niger, I knew immediately that it would be difficult to find victims of forced child marriages. This region has one of the highest rates of such unions in the world, but efforts by the government to curb them had driven the centuries-old practice underground. Parents had become reluctant to publicize child marriages, fearing they could face a jail sentence.
When I spoke with the head government child protection officer in Maradi, she informed me that she had heard of only one recent case: a 12-year-old girl who jumped inside a well and severely injured herself after learning that her parents was going to marry her to a much older man.
The family lived in a village about a two-hour drive away. But when we reached there, the girl said she was 17, and her parents and tribal elders claimed she jumped into the well because she was mentally ill. It was a dead end. So we drove back to Maradi.
But I knew that the practice was so widespread, that if I spoke with enough people, knocked on enough doors, I would find cases. I enlisted the help of local agencies working with abused children, the child protection officer of the United Nations Children’s Fund, and visited the regional hospital. Over the next four days, we managed to find the girls who are portrayed in today’s story.
Balki Souley is one of the 25,000 girls under the age of 18 who are married every day worldwide. According to the Thomson Reuters service TrustLaw, the top 10 worst countries for child marriage, by percentage of women 20-24 years old who are married before they reach 18, are:
1. Niger, 75 percent
2. Chad, 72 percent
3. Mali, 71 percent
4. Bangladesh, 66 percent
5. Guinea, 63 percent
6. Central African Republic, 61 percent
7. Mozambique, 52 percent
8. Nepal, 51 percent
9. Malawi, 50 percent
10. Ethiopia, 49 percent
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