‘Living as orphan’: The story of Nigerian girls running away from child marriage

By Rukayat Abdullah

Hadizah Shehu Uthman, 19, grew up in a rural village in northern Nigeria. When she was just 11, her mother and father forced her, despite her stiff opposition, to enter into an arranged marriage with an older man who was a complete stranger to her.

“In my community, young girls, even though, they may be below the age of 15 are married off, most times against their wills. Once a female child starts showing signs of puberty, she is fit for marriage,” she said.

Though it is unlawful in Nigeria, tens of thousands of teenage girls are married off by their families. Child marriage – defined as marriage before the age of 18 – is rooted in the cultural traditions of the Hausa-Fulani communities in Northwest Nigeria.

Child brides often come from patriarchal societies where parents and elders play very significant or domineering roles in selecting spouses for their children. Strong cultural norms place emphasis on a girl’s virginity, which is closely tied to family honour. Parents are disposed to marrying off their daughters at a very tender age to ensure they marry as virgins and retain the family honour.

The country’s agency that oversees and publishes statistics, National Bureau of Statistics NBS, survey revealed that girls get into early marriages more than men do. Regardless of sex, UNICEF describes the process as a fundamental violation of human rights. According to the UN agency, it places a child at risk of marriage, such as serious health risks, complications from pregnancies, and sexual violence, including poverty.

While the prevalence of child marriage has decreased worldwide from one in four girls a decade ago to approximately one in five today, the practice remains widespread. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for global action to end this human rights violation by 2030.

‘I wanted to be a student, not a housewife’
“When I was in JSS1, my hope was high and all I wanted at that time was nothing but a good education. As a young girl, being a university student in some years to come was the only thing I could dream of at that moment,” Hadizah recalled.

“But soon, my hope was dashed. The news that my father was ready to betroth me to a cousin I had never heard of his name hit me. I was sad and was not ready for it. I wanted to be a student, not a housewife. I protested and engaged the family elders to tell them my intention but no one was ready to listen to my voice. They believed as a child, I had no say and could not tell them what decision to make about my life. This was my father’s decision and no going back.”

While state laws do not support this, many young ladies may be too frightened to go through the courts to assert their legal rights for fear of retaliation from their own immediate family and by extension – communities.

‘I left school – was sent to market to hawk for money to plan my marriage’
There was intense pressure to get married – and to stay married – and as time went on, life for Hadizah in her parent’s home grew more hard. Hence, she left school.

“I got withdrawn from school and was taken to a village to hawk during the day. I was supposed to get money to prepare for my planned weddings. This creeped me out because I could not understand why I needed to suffer this much as a child,” she said.

“For months, I cried and prayed to God to help me out but the reality was later down on me that no help was forthcoming because nothing could change my father’s intention unless I run away from home.”

Married girls were not supposed to leave their husband’s homes in the insular community, but she secretly began to plan the process of leaving him. “I knew it was a weird decision for a young female child like me to run away from home. But I had to do it for my future. I eloped,” says Hadizah.

In the middle of nowhere
When she told her best friend about her plan to elope to Kwara State, about eight-hour away from her village – Kwandage in Niger State, she tried to stop her from going. She went anyway.

“I eventually eloped. I faced several deadly risks while on my escape route. One was an attempted rape from the driver of the car I boarded in a nearby town. The driver of the car I boarded attempted to rape me because he thought he could take advantage of my tender age but I was rescued by passersby whose attention was caught by my scream,” she narrated.

“In the end, I arrived safely in Kwara state. While looking for a shelter, I met a woman to whom I narrated my ordeals. She helped me get in touch with an old man who was at that time sponsoring her younger sister’s education in Offa, Kwara State. After hearing my story, he took me to his friend’s house who owns a joint where he sells alcohol.”

On the second day of her stay with the Alcohol seller, she recalls a young man walking into the joint to take her to the “Police ‘A’ Division” in Ilorin. At the station, her dad was invited down to Ilorin for interrogation. “It is our cultural norm, nobody has ever been to school in our family, so who is she to go to school? and besides, I am a poor Farmer with a very large family. I cannot afford her education,” she remembers her father telling the police before he was released from custody. He left, but without her.

‘Living as an orphan, even though my parents’ still alive’
In common usage, only a child who has lost both parents due to death is called an orphan. But for Hadizah and some other girls running from marriage, the definition is entirely different. She had to stay as an orphan in the government-owned Kwara State Children Reception Centre in Ilorin after her case was referred to the State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development by the Police.

“Since then, I’ve been in the care of the Kwara State Government, sponsoring my education. I finished my secondary education in 2019, and I just secured admission into the University of Ilorin,” Hadizah said.

Hadizah Shehu Uthman holding a picture she took in school uniform at the Ophan centre. PC: The Informant247
She described living in an orphanage home as a great experience but she said it has not been easy to be addressed as an orphan. “I have parents, but I live as an orphan, it’s sad. But I prefer that, instead of going back to my family who were not ready to accommodate me if I am not willing to give in to the plan marriage,” she said.

What data say about Child Marriage in Nigeria
Save the Children International, SCI, a Civil Society Organisation, through its report launched late last year, disclosed that 44 per cent of girls in Nigeria are married off before the age of 18.

According to SCI in the report tagged ‘State of the Nigerian Girl Report – An Incisive Diagnosis of Child Marriage’ pointed that Nigeria records one of the highest rates of child marriages globally.

Also, the report indicated that 78 per cent of girls in the northern region of Nigeria marry before the age of 18, while child marriage is more prevalent in the North West and North East regions of Nigeria, where 48 per cent of girls were married by age 15 and 78 per cent were married by age 18.

According to the report, the percentage of people aged 20-49 years who were first married or in union before age 18 for women was 44.1 per cent while men accounted for 6%. The percentage of young people aged 15-19 years who are currently married or in a union for women was 22.2 percent while no man was in such a union.

The percentage of people from 15-49 years who are in a polygynous union for women was 36.9 per cent while men accounted for 18.7 per cent. This is proof that Early Child Marriage affects quite a large number of women and girls.

The report reads in part, “In Borno State, 89.13 per cent of women aged between 15 and 49 were first married before age 15. 59 per cent of them had no education whatsoever; 42% had some level of primary school education and 100 per cent had no secondary school education. Among women who are in a marital relationship or union, 46 per cent have spouses who are older by 10 years or more.

“In Jigawa State, 78 per cent of women, aged 20-49 were first married before age 18. 25 per cent of women aged 15-19 are presently married or in a union and 63 per cent of women dropped out of school to marry. Only eight per cent of women who married before age 18 are gainfully employed and earn above the NBS 2020 national poverty line. 65 per cent of fathers, mothers and mothers-in-law approve of CEFM.”

The report indicated that there is evidence of clear and strong link between Child Early Forced Marriage (CEFM) prevalence and endemic poverty, poor education outcomes, school dropout rates, a high rate of out-of-school children, and poor access to basic social, economic and healthcare services.

Poverty, socio-cultural beliefs and early marriage

Like Hadizah’s father identifies poverty and tradition as his reason for marrying her off at a tender age, the Commissioner for Woman Affairs in Kwara State speaking with The Informant247 said, “Poverty is a factor and at times culture and tradition takes the height of it. When you look at the situation that people believe if you allow your girl to stay for more than 18years in your house, and have been menstruating consistently, it means you are not practising your religion.

“That is, it is expected of you that after one, two, three monthly flows, you should allow the girl to get married to avoid fornication that will bring embarrassment to the family. At times, people look at it that when you marry your daughter off, whatever you get from such marriage is your gain. Some countries even in Africa, get wealth from marrying their daughters out. They can ask you to give them cows, rams, or even ask you to go and work on their farms. It is a way of generating income. The government is not resting on the case of child marriage.”

It is believed that poor families tend to marry off their young daughters to reduce what they see as an economic burden, so they have fewer children that they need to feed, clothe and educate. In some cultures, a major incentive is the price prospective husbands will pay for young brides.

Mrs. Aremu Rahmat Damilola, the founder of Raina orphans and vulnerable children support organization, said, “Child marriage is prevalent in many of the communities where poverty is endemic. Parents, and fathers especially, actually benefit from the dowry and extras that their daughter’s suitor contributes to the family of the girl child.

“Social pressures within a community can lead families to wed young children. For example, some cultures believe marrying girls before they reach puberty will bring blessings to families. Some societies believe that early marriage will protect young girls from sexual attacks and violence and see it as a way to ensure that their daughter will not become pregnant out of wedlock and bring dishonour to the family.”

Impact on girl’s health, education
It is not only the girls that pay for early marriage but society also pays. Population pressure, health care costs and lost opportunities for human development are just a few of the growing burdens that society shoulders because of early marriage.

Aremu said, “Girl education is one of the means to address poverty and development problems. With education, girls are given the chance to choose their own futures and not one chosen by their parents and guardian. There is a close link between delayed marriage and adult earning women’s economic future and their ability to participate in and contribute in the global economy are primary dependent on a rise in educational attainment, but this is impossible when the girl married early.

“Women who marry at early age are likely to find the sole focus of their lives, at the expense of development in other areas such as formal education, and training for employment, work experience and growth.”

According to the UN, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15–19 years in developing countries. Stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50% higher among mothers under 20, compared to women who get pregnant in their 20s.

Maternal and child mortality are some of the implications of early marriage, as a result of the increased likelihood of early pregnancy. A WHO report shows that child marriage and adolescent pregnancy are essentially linked to 90% of adolescent births in the developing world.

When a girl child is married off, the health of her children suffers too. The children of child brides are at a substantially greater risk of illnesses and deaths. Furthermore, stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50% higher in mothers under the age of 20 than in women who give birth when they are in their mid to late 20s or older.

The way forward to protecting girls
Ending child marriage in Nigeria would require terminating the problem at its root, Aremu said, adding that it involves leveraging and harmonizing the instrument of the law, community efforts, and the good standing of leaders of sociocultural institutions across Nigeria to nip the problem at its root. “This has to do with getting rid of endemic and some dysfunctional aspects of the various cultural traditions in the country, which harbor and encourage gender-discriminatory norms,” Aremu said.

Dr Rachael Adari of the Department of Adult and Primary Education, University of Ilorin, said, “The major way we can prevent early marriage is through education. Since it is their tradition in Northern Nigeria, they do not see anything wrong with it. Even the girl child being forced into marriage doesn’t know they are infringing on her rights. They just see it as a norm and the only way we can prevent this is through education. Once a child has access to education, the child will know what her right is and even the parents too. If they are educated, they will know if what they are doing is right or not right.

“We go on air to enlighten parents on the need to stop this act. We tell them what they stand to lose if their children are not educated. We also tell the educated parents to propagate this teaching when they get to their communities by telling their fellow parents about it. We sometimes go to market squares to educate parents on the need to allow their children to go to school and let them remain in school still. We go to bars and religious gatherings.”

The Africa Director at the Human Rights Watch, Mausi Segun, in a statement early this year, urged the government at all levels to urgently align the CRA with existing laws to protect girls’ rights.

He said, “It is disturbing that almost two decades after the Child Rights Act was passed, Nigerian girls are still being forced into child marriages.

“Nigerian states should urgently act to adopt, implement, and align existing laws with the provisions of the Child Rights Act, which criminalises marriage before the age of 18 and protects girls’ rights.”

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