Idrisu Ali grimaces as he recalls the day he sent his 12-year-old daughter, Fatima, away to live with a 65-year-old man.
Although the practice is common in Nigeria’s remote northern state of Bauchi, Ali did not feel entirely comfortable with the idea of giving away his little girl’s hand in marriage – to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
“I was sad because he was too old. I wanted her to marry someone younger, say 55 or 50 because he could take care of her for a longer time before he dies. But he was a successful farmer in the village and he paid a good dowry,” says Ali in his rundown shack in Bauchi, the state capital.
The dowry consisted of some kola nuts (native to the African tropics), a cow, a bag of salt and a sewing machine. To protect his daughter from the negative glares of society, Ali accepted the generous offer and sent Fatima on her way to her new life as a wife.
“This is what happens when a girl reaches puberty. It is our culture and that is the right thing for a woman to do. She will grow up quickly and learn how to take care of a man and the home and bring honor to her family,” says Ali.
For Fatima and many other young girls in Northern Nigeria, their demise into forced marriages is puzzling.
Fatima’s marriage is prohibited under Nigeria’s Child Rights Act (CRA), which bans marriage before the age of 18. But federal laws are at loggerheads with age-old customs, as well as the implementation of Sharia law or Islamic law in some Muslim states.
“As a father you have to do what is best for your family. If your daughter is ready for marriage, you do what you must to make sure she finds a good man,” says Ali.
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Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa, with 23 million girls and women who are married in childhood according to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF). GirlsnotBrides.org asserts that globally, the number of teen brides is expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2050 if there is no reduction with one in three girls in the developing world married before age 18.
The practice has continued to gain prominence in northern Nigeria due to prevailing attitudes in an area with gender disparity. The grim situation is particularly pronounced in this region due mainly to strong resistance to CRA with opponents stating that some aspects of the Act are against religion and therefore cannot be followed.
“According to current figures, more than 50,000 girls worldwide are married while still children, often before they may be physically and emotionally ready to become wives and mothers and this endangers the life trajectories of these girls in numerous ways,” says Oby Ezekwesili, Senior Economic Advisor and Co-Founder of #Bringbackourgirls campaign.
Such was the case for Mamuna Ibrahim. At the age of 14, she is already a divorcee.
“When I was 13, one of my father’s friends came to the house and asked for a bride. My father chose me because I was the oldest out of my three siblings. I did not want to go with him. I wanted to go to school and be an air hostess but I could not disobey my father so I accepted,” says Ibrahim.
Her husband, a 38-year-old trader, took her away to the remote dust-blown state of Borno in north eastern Nigeria. Immediately after the marriage, Ibrahim’s problems began.
“I wanted to continue my education but he said no. One day he came home and I was reading a storybook and he got really angry and beat me. He said a wife’s place is in the house not at school. He was abusive and demanded sex every evening. It was painful,” says Ibrahim.
To escape the traumatic ordeal, she ran home to her mother and begged not to be returned. Her angry husband divorced her immediately under Sharia Law, which requires a man to say out loud “I divorce you” three times for a marriage to be over.
“My father was very angry and embarrassed. He threatened to kill me but my mother and other elders of the family pleaded with him. He stopped talking to me because I brought shame to the family. He disowned me,” says Ibrahim.
She stays with her mother’s sister on the outskirts of Kaduna. Her situation is worsened due to her early pregnancy. At three months in and with no education or prospects of finding a job, Ibrahim roams the streets of Kaduna selling bean cake and mobile phone vouchers to make ends meet.
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According to the International Center For Research on Women (ICRW), the impact of the practice of child marriage is felt both at the individual and societal levels and it is therefore imperative in alleviating poverty and subsequently, promoting economic development.
“Child marriages have an adverse impact on the economy by limiting opportunities for career and vocational advancement for young girls. It therefore disempowers women and stifles the prosperity of a country because when a significant number of the workforce is rendered economically inactive, the nation will suffer,” says Bismarck Rewane, CEO, Financial Derivatives Company in Lagos.
Its health implications are just as dire.
“There are several health risks that these young girls are exposed to. Most of them get pregnant at an age where normal vaginal births are difficult because their hips are not wide enough for the baby to be pushed through the vaginal canal and this can lead to the death of the mother and the baby. Also, the babies are exposed to diseases due to the lack of micronutrients in the girl’s body and most often babies do not survive,” says Dr. Mariam Doku, a pediatrician at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Ghana.
Her claims are further buttressed by the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) that asserts that teen brides are more likely to contract HIV and are also exposed to sexually transmitted infections due to their inability to negotiate safer sexual practices. As President of the IWHC, Françoise Girard, has played a key role in advocacy on sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights with UN agencies.
It is her belief that ending the practice of teen brides is a smart thing to do as it falls in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which has made ending child marriage by 2030 a key target.
Organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF continue to support efforts in many countries but according to Rewane, much more must be done.
“The notion that sending girls off to marry much older men is a better option is also partly attributable to poverty. For instance, a very poor family is likely to reason that marrying their daughter off early will provide her basic needs and in addition, the gains gotten from her marriage may be part of the survival strategy of the family. So we need to tackle the root of the issue, which is poverty and that means efforts to abolish this practice needs to be a state-level intervention,” asserts Rewane.
For those in remote areas who are dependent on subsistence farming, the practice can be influenced by seasonal conditions. For example, in the years when rains or crops fail, the practice of “drought brides”, thus girls who bring in a dowry, while being one fewer mouth to feed, contribute to pushing up the numbers of teen brides dramatically. Four of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in West Africa’s Sahel and Sahara belt, according to UNICEF.
In many of these communities, a family’s wealth is measured in terms of the herd of cattle they own and young girls are the medium of payment. As policy makers continue to lobby traditional heads to implement the CRA in local communities, the dilemma continues for girls like Ibrahim whose cries for freedom continue to fall on deaf ears.