Niger is on a drive to boost education for girls – and for husbands – to slow down the world’s fastest-growing population in a country with soaring youth unemployment and the highest rate of child marriage, Save the Children said on the eve of International Women’s Day.
Families in Niger, on average, have seven children, according to 2020 data, with children seen as bringing household wealth with more hands to work. But this has caused the population to explode to about 25 million from 3.5 million people in 1960, with the median age now 14.5 and with two out of five Nigeriens (40.8%) living below the national poverty line. Most of them live (95%) in rural areas where the incidence of poverty is much higher. The regions of Dosso, Zinder and Maradi are the worst affected.
Annual population growth of 3.7% puts additional pressure on this landlocked country, where the climate crisis prevents families from farming as they used to due to the scarcity of rain or increasing floods. Six months ago, flooding destroyed about 8,600 houses and 330 hectares of crops and decimated 620 cattle. In addition, new refugees are arriving every day in Niger to escape conflicts in neighbouring countries.
For girls, these added pressures have resulted in increased risks of child marriage, with families struggling with poverty seeing dowries as an essential source of additional income. However, this locks them out of school and puts them in danger of childbirth when their bodies are too young to cope and mental health issues.
In Niger, about 76% of girls are married before the age of 18 and 28% before the age of 15, according to data from 2012 with no other statistics collected since then. Child rights groups had reported progress in the past decade but are now concerned that conflict, the climate crisis, and displacement are driving up numbers again.
Save the Children is working with local authorities and partners to help educate girls about family planning and run “husband schools” to address the custom in Niger, where most of the population still considers very large families (more than 10 children) to be the norm. Officials had aimed to increase the use of modern contraceptives to 50% by 2020, but data shows the target may have been too ambitious and was not met even though a change in behaviour is noticed in some areas.
With the current rate of population growth, 600,000 more children per year are expected to enter school, which would mean having to open at least 12,000 new schools a year. In August 2022, 890 schools in Niger were already closed due to insecurity, leaving almost 78,000 children without access to education, of which more than 38,000 were girls, according to a UNICEF report.
Niger ranked as one of the countries where education is at a high risk of collapse in a recent report by Save the Children that revealed seven of the 10 countries facing the highest risk of education being under collapse were in Africa.
Abdou Ousmane Kango, 60, is an active member of a husband school at the Bandé integrated health centre in the Zinder region. He said: “We are seeing a lot of behavioural changes. Women are coming to the health centre more and more and asking to take the pill. They are less embarrassed and have sensitised their husbands so that they have access to their ID card which is required to collect the pills.
“Women are learning the benefits of contraception and we are seeing some women stay on the pill for two to three years without getting pregnant. A religious guide also supports us to deconstruct the belief that it is important to have many children to perpetuate the religion.”
At the integrated health centre of Bandé supported by Save the Children, the number of women that use contraception increased eightfold in a year – from 144 in January 2022 to 1,235 in December 2022, due to awareness-raising helped by the school for husbands. In addition to having an impact on demographics, these classes allowed young mothers, who in most cases were married around the age of 15, to take better care of themselves and their families and to engage income-generating activities.
Inger Ashing, Chief Executive Director of Save the Children International, on a recent trip to Niger, said:
“I’ve just spent the last few days in Zinder where girls told me how much they want to continue their education. They want the opportunity to have a better life, and they no longer want to see girls trapped in a marriage with no way out, often to a much older man.
“Niger is believed to have the highest rate of child marriage globally. We hear time after time how this can end the future of so many young, bright girls dreaming for more.
“We know that poverty is linked to higher rates of child marriage. We know that Niger is facing multiple challenges such as the food crisis, the arrival of refugees from neighbouring countries and the consequences of climate change. But we can do more by teaching girls other ways to build a livelihood and encouraging men to support them.”
Save the Children runs education programmes across Niger to enable children, especially girls, to have access to quality education, even in conflict zones. In 2022, Save the Children reached more than 2,500,000 people in Niger, including more than 1,680,000 children.