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She escaped child marriage twice. Now she’s trying to save other girls from pandemic suitors.

“Ladies,” she said, fidgeting with a beaded bracelet. “Why do you want to marry off your girls?”

Fifteen women crowded in plastic chairs below an acacia tree, passing around a bowl of peanuts, all watching her. Was that boredom on their faces? Or skepticism? Fatouma never knew how an audience would react, so the young speaker tried to raise the subject gently — like a neighbor, familiar and safe, who just wants to chat, the Washington Post reports.

Their daughters, she hoped, could avoid what she had suffered as a child bride in the western African nation of Niger.

“Ladies,” she said, fidgeting with a beaded bracelet. “Why do you want to marry off your girls?”

Seventy-six percent of girls in Niger become brides before turning 18 — the highest rate of child marriage in the world.

Across the region, the pandemic is driving a rise of underage wives. Coronavirus ripple effects — stemming from school closures and mounting financial hardship — are projected to push up to 10 million more girls into marriage before the decade ends, UNICEF has forecast. The trend is expected to worsen where child marriage is already most prominent: mainly in South Asia and Africa.

Many African countries imposed lockdowns to tame the health crisis, which crushed jobs as the cost of basic goods spiked. Feeding a family in Niger, where the average mother gives birth to approximately seven children — more than anywhere else — became even harder. Marrying daughters off is seen as a way to ease the financial stress at home while providing stability for girls.

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