Early marriage has a number of negative effects on the lives of girls and their own children. Image: Vincent Tremeau / Plan International West Africa

Nigeria’s Epidemic of Child Marriages


Nigeria sees four out of every ten girls being married off before reaching the age of eighteen, amounting to over 24 million child brides. Ongoing political instability, poverty, and displacement have exacerbated the prevalence of child marriages in the country.

With alarming prevalence rates of underage unions, Nigeria ranks third globally with statistics revealing that 30.3% of girls in Nigeria are wed before their 18th birthday, and a disturbing 12.3% before the age of 15, compared to only 1.6% of boys married before 18. Although recent data indicates a decline in the national prevalence from 44% to 30%, progress remains sluggish and unequal, disproportionately affecting the poorest households, rural regions, and girls deprived of education.

Child marriage is a common practice in Nigeria rooted in traditional, economic, religious, and legal conditions that disproportionately affect girls and women.

According to UNICEF’s Nigeria Representative Cristian Munduate, child marriages are most rampant in states like Bauchi, Jigawa, and Zamfara. Bauchi records a staggering 74% of child brides, closely followed by Jigawa with 72%, Katsina with 69%, and Zamfara with nearly 67%.

Underscored the gravity of the situation at the high-level National Dialogue on Ending Child Marriage in Abuja, convened by the Government of Nigeria with support from UNFPA and UNICEF, Munduate stressed that child marriage violates international human rights law, often leading to severe forms of violence against women and girls, including intimate partner violence.

Munduate noted that a recent joint study by the Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs and UNICEF sheds light on the staggering economic toll of child marriage, estimating an annual burden of $10 billion on the nation. “The study also forecasts a potential GDP surge of nearly 25% upon its eradication,” Munduate highlighted.

Child marriage predominantly plagues Nigeria’s North West and North East regions, where a staggering 52% and 51.1% of women aged 20-24 were married before turning 18. Bauchi state, in particular, bears the brunt, with a shocking 74% of women aged 20-24 entering polygynous unions before their 18th birthday, while 49.2% of women in the state are wedded to spouses at least a decade older.

This detrimental practice disproportionately affects Nigeria’s poorest rural households, with the Hausa ethnic group facing higher prevalence rates. Child marriage is driven by poverty, limited education opportunities, political and economic motives, and traditions such as marrying girls before puberty to preserve their virginity.

Ongoing instability and conflict continue to impact the prevalence of child marriage as clashes between government forces and armed groups such as Boko Haram, compromised the education and health systems, and forced thousands to flee their homes. This has led to increased rates of school dropouts and violence against women and girls, including child marriage. It is estimated that 32,000 children are unaccompanied or separated as a result of the conflict, further increasing their vulnerability to exploitation and child marriage. There is also widespread forced displacement and as of February 2022, 8.3 million people require humanitarian assistance in North East Nigeria and it is estimated that there are 3 million internally displaced persons.

A 2017 study by the World Bank and ICRW projects that ending child marriage could inject an additional USD 7.6 billion into Nigeria’s earnings and productivity, underscoring the urgency of concerted efforts to combat this pervasive issue.

Percentage of women aged 20 to 24 years who were married or in union by age 15 and by age 18 in West and Central Africa. Source: UNFPA/UNICEF

Mariya Nadeem Khan

Mariya is a researcher within the Urban Socio-Spatial Development department at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She has an MA in Development Studies from Erasmus University and a Bachelor’s in International Relations from Leiden University. Her research builds on violence, nationalism, and social movements in South Asia and the GCC. Her other areas of interest include non-Western historiography, alternatives to the capitalist world economy, and Urdu literature.

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