According to The Washington Post, in Niger approximately one out of every two girls marry before age 15, the highest rate of child marriage in the world:

Balkey Souley, 14, was married when she was just 12, and she recently lost her baby, who was born dead… Her body was so frail, so weakened by a lack of food that she, too, nearly died.

It is no coincidence, then, that Niger also has the world’s highest fertility rate (the average woman bears more than 7 children), and rising rates of obstetric fistula, malnourished mothers, and underweight babies (8 percent of newborns weigh less than 5 pounds), many of whom perish within weeks of being born.  Achirou Oumarou, the director of the regional hospital in Maradi, who attributes the deplorable infant and maternal mortality and morbidity rates to the food crisis, says “People are eating leaves to survive.”  Balkey’s tragic circumstances are all too common in West Africa, where millions of people are facing an epic hunger crisis:

[A]id workers are concerned that struggling parents might marry off their daughters even earlier for the dowries they fetch, including animals and cash, to help the families survive.

Niger’s government has established 15 as the minimum legal age for marriage, and parents of underage brides risk imprisonment.  But, criminalizing underage marriage has not eliminated the harmful practice:

[E]arly marriages remain widely accepted by families across large swaths of the country, fueled largely by high rates of poverty and illiteracy, ancient tribal codes and conservative religious views that wield more influence than government decrees in rural communities.

In fact, rampant poverty in Niger threatens to increase the rate of forced early marriage.  UNICEF’s head of child protection, Djanabou Mahonde, told The Washington Post World, “The fear is, if the food crisis continues, that more parents will use marriage as a survival strategy and that we’ll see more girls married before the age of 15.”  Save the Children’s thirteenth annual State of the World’s Mothers report recently declared Niger the worst place in the world to be a mother:

[T]he average girl in Niger receives only four years of education and lives to only 56 years. One child in seven dies before his or her fifth birthday, which means that “every mother in Niger is likely to suffer the loss of a child.”

According to Save the Children, 7 of the 10 countries at the bottom of the worst-places-to-be-a-mother list are grappling with food crises.

READ MORE: In Niger, hunger crisis raises fears of more child marriages, By , The Washington Post WORLD (July 10, 2012).