When Halima Ibrahim got a marriage proposal, she didn’t hesitate. A new and exciting experience beckoned; a way out of grinding poverty where she did not have to compete with 16 siblings for food, space and attention.
Nor did her parents object. In Sankalawa, a dust-blown, bleak village of cinder-block and mud-brick homes in northern Nigeria’s Zamfara state, a wedding brings gifts of money: up to 100 000 naira (about R4 000) for the mother of the bride from other women in the village, with similar or even more generous donations from the men to the father of the bride.
Halima (not her real name) was barely 13 years old, a slight, softly spoken child who had been taken out of school and was selling akara (fried cakes made from ground beans) to help to support her family.
“I was so excited because most of my friends were either married or had boyfriends,” she says.
She wed Abdullahi, a 17-year-old, in a traditional ceremony. But within months the arguments started. The fish Abdullahi had bought her in the first days dried up, as did the money. Halima went hungry; even more hungry than she had been in her large, chaotic childhood home.
“He would start beating me and I would just run to our neighbours or to the bush,” she says, her eyes darkening under carefully drawn eyebrows.
Now divorced, Halima is still only 15.
The number child brides is expected to double by 2050
Child marriage is common in northern Nigeria, where up to three out of four girls (76%) are married before their 18th birthday, data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shows. Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa, Unicef reported in 2015, with 23-million girls and women who were married in childhood. Countrywide, this means nearly half (49%) of Nigeria’s women marry under the age of 18.
Taking the country’s population growth into account, the total number of child brides in Nigeria will double by 2050, Unicef predicts in a 2014 report, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects.
This is despite the country last year officially becoming the 17th to join the African Union’s eight-year campaign to end child marriage. Nigeria has launched its own drive to eradicate the practice by 2030.
In the north, child marriage has been politically and culturally controversial and efforts to end it are often thwarted. In 2010 Ahmed Sani Yerima, then a 49-year-old senator for Zamfara West, defiantly married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl as his fourth wife. Yerima defended his decision as sanctified by Islam and later reportedly again used his religion to oppose changes to a constitutional clause that means girls under the age of 18 become “full age” once married.
The Nigerian government made child marriage illegal in 2003 when it adopted the Child Rights Act, which raised the minimum age of marriage to 18. But the legislation was created at a federal level and only 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states have passed the Act, according to a Unicef press release marking this year’s Nigerian Children’s Day in May.
Even in the states that have adopted the legislation, it is “not well enforced”, says Sylvia Adebajo, director of the Population Council in Nigeria.
“The main drivers of child marriage in Nigeria are poverty, poor educational attainment and strong social and religious traditions,” Adebajo explains.
One less mouth to feed
Halima’s parents took her back into their home when they saw her wasting away and desperately unhappy in her marriage. “They felt we might struggle even more when we get children,” she says.
Many families would not have fetched their daughters, Halima believes. In this impoverished and harsh landscape, many parents marry off their daughters to reduce the mouths they have to feed.
Although the north has long complained of being starved of federal funding, poverty in the predominantly Muslim region has been exacerbated by droughts and, recently, devastation wrought by the Boko Haram insurgency.
In Sankalawa, as in many of the other villages and towns dotted across the north, many people are subsistence farmers, says Muhammadu Ango, a member of the child protection committee in the village. “If there was no poverty, we wouldn’t experience too many early marriages because it would not be necessary,” he explains.
Garba Lacco, secretary of the child protection committee in Zamfara, blames illiteracy and ignorance.
The charity Save the Children found in a 2016 report, Every Last Child: Changing the Story, that there is a correlation between lack of education and early marriage: 82% of women aged 20 to 24 who married by the age of 18 had no education and only 13% had finished secondary education.
Once they are married, women find it hard to return to the classroom.
“Girls who marry are not only denied their childhood,” the Unicef report states. “They are often socially isolated — cut off from friends and other sources of support — with limited opportunities for education and employment. Households typically make decisions about girls’ schooling and marriage jointly, not sequentially, and education tends to lose out.”
The consequences can be devastating. Child brides are often unable to negotiate safer sex, leaving them vulnerable to HIV and pregnancy. They “typically end up having many children to care for while they are young”.
Only 3% of girls in early marriages use contraception, Save the Children reports, and childbearing is risky for them because they are not physically ready for pregnancy or childbirth. Many end up with obstetric fistula, described by the UNFPA as one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries. It is a tear between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum caused by prolonged, obstructed labour and leaves women leaking urine, faeces or both. Nigeria has the highest prevalence of obstetric fistula in the world, according to Save the Children, with up to 800 000 women living with the problem.
This compounds poverty and, in many cases, husbands send these women away.
Safe spaces for Nigeria’s girls
Although there is widespread agreement that the thousands of girls in Nigeria need to be stopped from marrying in the next decade, the task is enormous. With early marriage deeply rooted in culture, religious beliefs and practices, Save the Children states in its report that proven solutions include girls’ schooling and programmes that offer life skills, health information and services and social support.
With the average girl in Nigeria staying in school until the age of nine, Unicef and the ministry of education announced an ambitious project, Girls for Girls or G4G, to put one- million girls in school and keep them there. G4G groups will be established in more than 8 000 schools by 2019, Mohamed Faul, Unicef’s representative in Nigeria, said in a statement earlier this month.
Programmes at a local level are also needed to change attitudes, offer life skills, improve literacy and give social support and health information, say humanitarian organisations such as Save the Children.
In Sankalawa, Halima is one of the teenage girls filing into a dimly lit classroom at the only elementary school in the village. Zahrah Muhammad (15) and 17-year-old Zainab Muhammad (not their real names), who come to the literacy classes with Halima, have both escaped violent husbands.
The literacy classes are arranged by a small nonprofit organisation, the Centre for Community Excellence or Cencex, which is based in nearby Gusau, the capital of Zamfara.
But the girls need more support than just learning to read and write, says Musa Alhassan, monitoring and evaluation officer of Cencex.
“We created safe spaces where we divided the children into 25 persons per group to sit together and share their problems and worries,” he explains. “This helps them to see they can regain their childhood.”
Fifty survivors of child marriage are being counselled in psychosocial sessions. Once they start opening up, Alhassan says, they undergo vocational training as well. This includes tailoring, beading and soap making.
“My group is very friendly,” says Zainab, who left her husband two years ago. “They didn’t make me feel any different from them.”
In the safe spaces, the girls’ views on education, childhood and marriage are challenged — and the groups do make a difference, says Annabel Erulkar, a director of the Population Council and principal investigator for several multicountry projects in Africa.
“Safe spaces girls’ groups have been effective in many settings to give girls access to friendships with other girls and adult female mentors. These venues have been used to convey health information and life skills as well as linking to rights such as health services,” says Erulkar.
Cencex, which is partly funded by Save the Children and works in six communities in the state, also runs a fistula project and, crucially, aims to change attitudes in the villages.
The centre recruited 240 members — 40 child protection committee members in each community — to protect the children’s rights and dissuade parents from marrying off girls before the age of 18. Each gets a monthly stipend to conduct community meetings and talk to religious leaders.
With religious and cultural sensitivities, the Population Council’s Adebayo says, a “holistic and multisectoral strategy” is needed. “One of the most important ways to change community perceptions and encourage support … is the involvement of key community and religious leaders.”
Although the members of the child protection committee in Sankalawa can’t give any figures to show that child marriages have decreased, they say their experience is that more children are returning to school and fewer parents want to marry their daughters off.
Girls are given school supplies and also grants to start their own small businesses with the skills they have learnt.
Zahrah, one of the three teenagers, is learning to make liquid soap and is beginning to read and write. “I see educated people helping their parents and I want to be like them,” she says. “I am beginning to believe in myself again.”
Halima, who can now sew, read and write, insists she wants her daughter — if she has one when she’s older — to be educated. “I don’t want her to go through the suffering I did. My marriage was hell and I don’t miss him. You can only miss someone you enjoyed being with.” — Additional reporting by Adri Kotze