How the war in Ukraine leads to more child marriages in Africa
In this edition, food inflation is preventing young Nigerian school girls from attending school, potentially pushing them into early marriages.
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Since December 2016, free school meals have fed millions of students across Nigeria, reducing malnutrition, increasing enrollment, keeping kids in school and creating tens of thousands of jobs. That undeniable progress is now under threat because crucial grain exports from Russia and Ukraine are being used as tools of both diplomacy and war.
Last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that the Black Sea grain deal, brokered in July to permit Ukraine to safely export agricultural products to global markets, was not benefiting his nation. With the deal up for renewal on May 18, Lavrov said that unless Russia is allowed to export grain and fertilizer without impediment, the deal would not be renewed. He blamed the deadlock on Western intransigence.
Europe and the U.S. are maintaining sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. While those sanctions do not impact food or fertilizer exports, they restrict payments, hobble logistics and present insurance barriers for Moscow. The Kremlin is now leveraging the grain deal to have the sanctions effectively lifted by demanding that the Russian Agricultural Bank be permitted to reenter the global banking system.
Over 27 million tons of grain have been exported through the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and although most of it has gone to developing countries, developed countries still received 45% of the resulting exports. The countries in the most dire need, including several in Africa, are still suffering the effects of a crisis caused by a lethal combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine that has made staple foods unaffordable.
In Nigeria, in December 2021, the cost for one Grand Loaf, a popular choice among Nigerian families, cost $1.43. By April 2022, the price was $2.02. The average family, meanwhile, made less than $300 a month. State-subsidized school lunches were essential for families who were struggling to feed themselves. But the rising costs of grains impacted free school lunches, too, which in turn affected rates of school enrollment.
In the Horn of Africa, in Ethiopia and Somalia, a drought in addition to the challenges posed by the pandemic and the rising prices driven by the Ukraine war means young girls are dropping out of school at “alarming rates,” UNICEF warned last year. Adolescent girls who are not in school are far more likely to be forced into marriage, which can provide a financial windfall for families.
WHY IT MATTERS
For nine-year-old Maryam Sagir and her six-year-old sister Aisha, who live in the city of Kano in northern Nigeria, school is a distant memory. They last attended classes more than a year ago. As with many other children in Kano, hunger has become a barrier to their education.
“I love school and would like to return,” Maryam said. But for now the food program at her school has stopped and the girls remain at home. “We were happy when the school feeding was on because it is one less worry for me as the provider knowing they will be fed in school,” their father, Sagir Sheka, said. But now, without the meal as an incentive, school expenses “became a worry,” he added.
Food inflation in March 2023 was at nearly 24.5% and driving overall inflation in Nigeria. The effect on the Nigerian economy, Africa’s largest, is pernicious. The wheat used to bake bread in Nigeria comes almost exclusively from Ukraine and Russia. With supplies of wheat, oils and other items disrupted by the war, Nigeria faces a number of threats to its already precarious food security. More than half of the food consumed by Nigerian households come from purchased sources, which means that the steep inflation has already pushed about seven million people into poverty.
In January 2023, Mykola Solskyi, the Ukrainian minister of agrarian policy and food, announced the establishment of grain hubs across Nigeria and in neighboring African countries. Ukraine’s hope, through this “Grains from Ukraine” program, is to strengthen bilateral relationships with African countries, several of which have refused to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin said this March that if Russia chose not to renew the Black Sea Grain initiative, it would supply African countries with the grain they needed free of charge.
But for all the promises, food prices continue to rise in import-dependent African countries and the knock-on effects mean that an entire generation is being deprived of education, health and adequate nutrition.
The consequences of the Ukraine war are deeply felt by the world’s poorest people. Children like Maryam and Aisha in Kano are being condemned to a life of poverty. And if they join the nearly 24 million Nigerian girls who are married off before they turn 18, they will also become vulnerable to domestic abuse.
Back in Kano, Maryam and Aisha’s mother, Rahama Ahmed Sheka, said she had kept her children’s uniforms ready for them to be able to return to school. “My hope is,” she said, “that one day the feeding program will be reintroduced so that Maryam and Aisha can return to class to learn.” She hopes one day they can become doctors.
Rahama worries that if their economic woes continue, her husband Sagir might decide to marry off his daughters. “In this area, just like my children, many others have also stopped going to school,” Rahama said. “The school fed them and that motivated them to learn. Without the meals, they stay at home and share whatever little the family has.” Food insecurity in Africa is exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, and while its short-term effects are clear, the real calamities are perhaps still to come. A perfect storm of disasters, including drought, the Covid-19 pandemic, conflict and inflation, means hard-won progress over the past few decades in several African countries is now being undone.
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