Young girls are being forced out of school and into marriage as West Africa’s food crisis drives families to desperate lengths.
Recent reports from Niger indicate girls as young as seven are being sold into marriage as food shortages force families to reduce the number of mouths they have to feed, and World Vision Australia fears more children will suffer the same fate without urgent action.
The state child protection director in the Tera district has reported the recent rescue of a seven-year-old girl sold into marriage with a man, 20, highlighting the tough decisions people make as a result of the food crisis.
The legal age for marriage in Niger is 15 for girls and 16 for boys, but the reality is more than 37 per cent of Nigerien girls are married before their 15th birthday. This alarming trend can be expected to increase.
World Vision Australia head of Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs Anthea Spinks said she was concerned about increasing reports of early marriage, and it was a sign of the desperation felt by the 6.4 million people facing food shortages in Niger alone.
“While there are many reasons behind early child marriage, the food crisis appears to be making it worse,” Ms Spinks said. “It’s a desperate decision for a parent, but marrying off a daughter means one less mouth to feed. Providing much needed food aid to those in need can help prevent these serious protection concerns.”
World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello said providing humanitarian relief for the 18 million people facing West Africa’s food crisis would help take the pressure off families considering drastic action.
“Unfortunately it is children who suffer the most when catastrophe strikes,” Mr Costello said. “Babies and children are not only incredibly vulnerable to the health impacts of food shortages and malnutrition, but they can be powerless in the face of heart-breaking decisions made by their families, or left open to exploitation.”
The food crisis is presenting an enormous challenge to aid agencies struggling to raise some of the $1.5 billion the United Nations says is needed.
World Vision Australia is providing food programs for severely malnourished children and food aid, but has received less than $200,000 in donations to its West Africa Food Crisis Appeal, and Mr Costello said the people of West Africa need Australians to dig deep.
“We know compassion fatigue is biting and the developed world faces its own economic woes,” Mr Costello said, “but without Australians once again showing how big their hearts are, this hungry season could be devastating for millions.
“We genuinely are looking at a catastrophic situation if the global community doesn’t act soon.”
Around 2.4 million children are currently affected by the crisis which has struck Niger, Mali, Chad, Senegal and Mauritania. Aid workers on the ground are warning that the coming weeks will be critical, as rations run dry and people turn to animal feed and wild leaves to survive.
To donate to the West Africa Food Crisis Appeal, go to www.worldvision.com.au or call 133240.
Media contact: Kate Rose 0418 528 683 / firstname.lastname@example.org