Project Description

Girls’ empowerment needs: New research on girls’ perceptions of choice and agency regarding marriage in Niger

In Niger, where three in four girls are married before age 18, opportunities for education and employment are extremely limited, and there are few examples of women who have followed paths other than early marriage. Given the constraints of this context, do adolescent girls even have a choice to defy the norms and delay marriage? What can we learn from girls themselves about the meaning and potential of girls’ empowerment in this context? Drawing on qualitative data from focus group discussions conducted in Maradi and Tillaberi, Niger, a new paper by researchers from the More than Brides Alliance (MTBA) and the Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherche sur les Dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local (LASDEL) explores how adolescent girls and their parents view the choice of when and whom to marry. The paper, Voice Without Choice? Investigating Adolescent Girls’ Agency in Marital Decision-making in Niger, was published in Progress in Development Studies early 2021.


Recent quantitative and qualitative research has found that—unlike in some contexts where arranged or forced marriages are common—girls and young women in Niger frequently report that the decision to marry was their own choice (Plan, 2011; Saul et al., 2017; WiLDaF, 2017). This article explores perceptions of girls’ voices in the marriage formation process and the social and economic factors shaping girls’ attitudes toward early marriage in Niger. The authors find that while girls themselves and others in the community insist that girls have a voice concerning when they will marry, married girls often state that their parents had chosen their husbands, but the decision to marry had been their own. For example, in a focus group in Maradi, married girls explained, “All of us here, no one chose their spouse. It was our parents who chose, and we accepted it.” A second girl agreed, adding, “We are proud of this choice”. The authors’ find that while girls reportedly have a say in choosing when to marry, this decision is not considered an independent or individual choice. Family members, peers, and others in the community’s voices also have influence.

(Lack of) Choice

This research explores social and economic factors shaping the available options for adolescent girls in this context. The authors find that a lack of economic or educational opportunities available (especially to women and girls), the absence of women who had delayed marriage themselves who might serve as role models of alternative choices, the highly gendered distribution of labour, and women’s economic dependence on men constrain options available to girls in Niger. When thinking about how girls will secure their futures, marriage presents itself as the only viable possibility.

Additionally, the authors find that powerful social norms, which prescribe social benefits for those who marry early, link virginity with marriageability, emphasise obedience and familial obligation, and dictate an acceptable “window of opportunity” for girls to marry, all play a role in shaping girls’ assessment of desirable options and perceptions of their agency concerning marriage decisions in Niger. Marriage is seen as an inevitable moment in a girls’ life, a marker of her transition to adulthood, and the best way of protecting her from the social and economic consequences of premarital sexual initiation. Perspectives offered in focus groups both with girls and parents demonstrated how when a girl reaches adolescence, her sexuality is increasingly seen as a threat to her future marriageability, creating pressure for her to marry before her future is put at risk. When asked about what would happen if a girl had sex and became pregnant before marriage, one unmarried girl in Tillabéri explained, “Her life will be completely miserable. If she has a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, the marriage won’t take place because he will say that he was going to waste his money and his life for a bad girl… and he will be encouraged in this decision [not to marry her].”

Focus group participants describe a girl’s marriage as a source of pride and relief for the girl and her family. When asked how others in the community would respond to a girl marrying first among her peers, one girl in Maradi explained, “They will say that she is clever. She developed strategies to have a spouse very quickly. Everyone will speak well of her.”

This research additionally finds that girls’ motivation to marry early is linked to the importance of obedience, which focus group participants portrayed as a sign of patience, discipline, and reciprocal respect in Nigerien society. When asked whether a girl has the right to refuse a marriage arranged for her, an unmarried girl in Maradi stated: “If she’s a docile and polite girl, she will accept her parents’ choice.” A girl’s decision to accept a marriage proposal supported by her family and community is seen to demonstrate her virtue and show she is a well-socialised woman deserving of respect and admiration.

Agency? Implications for ‘girls’ empowerment’ approaches in child marriage programming

This study illustrates how girls’ perceptions of their agency regarding marriage are difficult to disentangle from their desire for approval within their families, peer groups, and communities. The authors conclude that in the Nigerien context, girls often consider entering into marriage when they receive an offer to be making a strategic life choice. Marriage is seen as a way of obtaining relative independence from their parents, financial security, and respect and admiration from their peers and communities. In a setting where child marriage is the prevailing norm and missing the “window of opportunity” to marry can harm girls’ futures, interventions aiming to curb child marriage by ‘empowering’ girls to ‘choose’ to delay marriage and advocates for their rights within their families and communities must critically examine what underlies girls’ evaluation of the ‘choices’ available to them.


Plan UK. 2011: Breaking vows: Early and forced marriage and girls’ education. Plan UK.

Saul, G., Melnikas, A.J., Amin, S., et al. 2017: More Than Brides Alliance (MTBA) baseline report, Niger. Population Council.

Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF). 2017: Lutter contre les mariage précoces par l’autonomisation des filles au Niger: Rapport définitif de l’étude de base. WiLDaF.

Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF). 2017: Combating early marriage through girls’ empowerment in Niger: Final report of the baseline study. WiLDaF.