KOIRA TAGUI, Niger — Fifteen women crowded in plastic chairs below an acacia tree, passing around a bowl of peanuts, all watching her. Was that boredom on their faces? Or skepticism? Fatouma never knew how an audience would react, so the young speaker tried to raise the subject gently — like a neighbor, familiar and safe, who just wants to chat.

Their daughters, she hoped, could avoid what she had suffered.

“Ladies,” she said, fidgeting with a beaded bracelet. “Why do you want to marry off your girls?”

Seventy-six percent of girls in this West African nation become brides before turning 18 — the highest rate of child marriage in the world.

Across the region, the pandemic is driving a rise of underage wives. Coronavirus ripple effects — stemming from school closures and mounting financial hardship — are projected to push up to 10 million more girls into marriage before the decade ends, UNICEF has forecast. The trend is expected to worsen where child marriage is already most prominent: mainly in South Asia and Africa.

Many African countries imposed lockdowns to tame the health crisis, which crushed jobs as the cost of basic goods spiked. Feeding a family in Niger, where the average mother gives birth to approximately seven children — more than anywhere else — became even harder. Marrying daughters off is seen as a way to ease the financial stress at home while providing stability for girls.

“We want to protect them,” a woman in a blue headscarf replied.

Fatouma, 21, frequently heard that logic at the talks she organizes — and from her own mother.

For the past four years, she has tried to counter it in her neighborhood, knocking on doors and meeting with parents. Her message: Let your girls grow up. (Fatouma spoke on the condition of using her first name because she fears harassment.)

Fatouma aims to have this talk before suitors — usually older men — try to woo families with cash, food or livestock. Those offers were extra appealing as Africa experienced its first recession in half a century last year at the same time millions of girls found themselves out of classrooms.

Data is scarce on how the pandemic has impacted child marriage, but 12 groups across eight countries in West and Central Africa contacted by The Washington Post said they have noticed a troubling upswing.

In southwest Chad, a survey found underage unions jumped by 20 percent while class was partly out of session from March to October 2020. “Parents just couldn’t meet their basic needs,” said Daniel Laou, a teacher working there for a nonprofit organization.

In southern Burkina Faso, an activist overwhelmed with tips — villages were reporting 5 to 7 percent increases in child marriages, but he suspected more — halted the nuptials of a 14-year-old by covering her school fees when classrooms reopened. Yet he couldn’t save his 16-year-old niece when his brother’s general store lost business.

“The border closed and made him broke, so he forced her to get married,” said Raphael Zong-Naba, who works at the nonprofit group Voix de Femmes. “I was hundreds of miles away and could not travel to stop it."

In northern Sierra Leone, another advocate estimated that child marriage doubled during lockdown. The typical 50 cases a year surpassed 100, said Paul Amadu Bangura at ChildHelp Sierra Leone in the city of Makeni.

“Times of financial hardship,” he said, “are guaranteed to make it worse.”

Fatouma volunteers for a nonprofit organization called Agir Plus in Koira Tagui, a suburb of Niger’s capital. Lately she had witnessed more girls in need of help: About 200 come to Agir Plus in a normal year; now the roster was approaching 300.

Parents here tend to prioritize school fees for boys, who are seen as future breadwinners, making girls more likely to sit idle. More than a quarter get married before age 15, which is illegal but rarely stopped.

The nation’s ban on large gatherings last year, meanwhile, ignited a boom of smaller, cheaper weddings. Even after the restrictions lifted, Fatouma heard of rushed ceremonies with four guests — a departure from the invite-everyone culture that gave her more time to intervene.

She had tried to help a 13-year-old girl named Amina, whose father’s corner shop hit hard times during Niger’s two-month lockdown. A friend of Amina’s mother had tipped off Agir Plus, so Fatouma hurried to their house, ready to argue the merits of letting the child grow up, but the father had already accepted a payment.

The next day, Amina wed.

Under the acacia tree, Fatouma posed a question to the crowd of women. “Why not let them finish school?”

They had kids, she knew. Part of her role was building relationships with club leaders, and the president of a women’s association had sent the mothers here for their monthly meeting. They could be targets or tipsters. Boys and girls played near their sandaled feet.

“Marriage brings security,” one woman offered.

“Why are you insisting they stay in school?” another asked Fatouma. “Were you sent by the government?”

She was not.

“Let me explain.”

Fleeing home — twice

Fatouma relished school — reading, debating, figuring out what drove people.

Then her father, the breadwinner, died when she was 12, and Fatouma’s routine imploded. Her mother told her it was time to drop out and find a husband.

She fled home and stayed the next three years with a family friend, who enrolled her in a private classroom until that friend died of old age. Fatouma, missing her younger sisters, returned to her mother and pleaded to stay in class.

But the family was struggling to eat. Another man sought Fatouma’s hand, so her mother took a match to the teenager’s birth certificate and school records, scorching the documents she needed to graduate.

“It felt like my own flesh was burning,” Fatouma tells people.

This time, her grandmother stepped in. The older woman gave Fatouma shelter and brought her to Agir Plus, which teaches girls to sew, make soup and sell peanut butter so they can support themselves.

Fatouma arrived weeping. The teenager could not earn enough money to replace her papers, but she picked up ways to get by. Before long, she led the trainings.

The pang to find a husband never came.

By the time Niger suspended classes in March 2020, Fatouma was focusing her energy on something that felt like detective work: Following leads. Taking risks. Negotiating with mothers and fathers.

It was, she thought, the most interesting thing she could do without a degree.

Fatouma counted 12 times she stopped a marriage over the past 18 months. She remains close to one 14-year-old, Fatou, whose father died as coronavirus infections multiplied — his cause of death was unknown — and whose uncle became head of the household. He was determined to get her married, saying the pandemic curfew blocked too many clients from the family’s grilled chicken stand.

Fatou’s mom told another mom who had heard Fatouma speak. That mom tipped off Agir Plus, and warned the uncle had a temper, so Fatouma urged male friends to get the police involved.

The uncle caved. The girl is back in class.

'They could become the president’

Twenty minutes into her talk, the women seemed to relax. Fatouma spotted a few smiles. She launched into her pitch.

“If you keep your girls in school, they could become ministers,” she said. “They could become a general. They could become the president.”

Her audience laughed.

“I’m serious,” she said. “They could drive a 4x4, and they’d pick you up — they wouldn’t leave you selling things by the side of the road.”

More laughter.

“A daughter who becomes someone,” Fatouma continued, “will never forget her mother.”

The group clapped.

“She’s speaking the truth!” someone yelled.

That was the grand finale, and Fatouma hoped she had quashed the tension with some levity.

“Contact me,” she said, “before you think about planning a wedding.”

She did not tell them she walks most places — Agir Plus only has a staff car — and sleeps on the linoleum floor of her aunt’s straw shack. She didn’t mention that her aunt had gotten married at 14 to a man who skipped town and left her without running water and electricity.

Sometimes, Fatouma shared these details in private conversations. One was scheduled that afternoon with the grandmother of a 10-year-old girl whose parents could no longer afford school fees.

By chance, the older woman’s marriage had been delayed — her family needed her around to care for a blind relative — so she knew the value of waiting. Instead, she wanted advice on guarding the girl’s childhood.

“Keep a close relationship with your granddaughter,” Fatouma advised her, “so she knows to come to you if something happens.”

Fatouma wished she had confided in her grandmother sooner. Maybe she would still have her papers.

She tries not to linger on that thought. She would rather focus on helping her sisters, who are now 16 and 18.

They still live with her mother, who moved a village three hours away. Fatouma hasn’t spoken to them in six months — no one has a cellphone, and travel is expensive — but whenever she has cash, she sends half of it to her mother.

It’s insurance for her sisters. She prays the money will shield them from a husband they do not want.

Issa Ly in Niamey, Niger, and Borso Tall in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

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