Just 26 percent of girls in northern Nigeria make it beyond primary school, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and local NGOs estimate that most of those who leave do so because their families marry them off.
In northern Nigeria it is estimated that more than half of girls are married before age 15, according to Mohammed Aliyu Mashi, head of the General Improvement in Persons Initiative (GIOPINI), a Kano-based NGO that has researched early marriage in the north.
NGOs and residents of the north say long-held cultural values -- and poverty -- dictate the futures of most young girls.
Among Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim northern states, just one - Jigawa - has passed a law to enforce the UN Child Rights Act, which prohibits child marriage, according to Ahmed Bello of the region's agency for the prohibition of human trafficking. But even in the Jigawa case, the 2007 law does not specify an age, referring only to “puberty” and letting a judge decide.
“We substituted the age limit of 18 years in the original draft with ‘puberty’, which we find acceptable with our people,” said Musa Imam, secretary of Jigawa State Judicial Reform Commission, which reviewed the law.
Residents of Jigawa told IRIN they had never heard of the law being enforced since it was passed. “Even if the government decides to enforce the law people will defy it because to us it is better to marry off your daughter and go to jail than to have a grandchild outside marriage,” said Hamisu Umar, a resident of Kandi village, 20km outside Dutse, the Jigawa State capital.
Judicial expert Imam told IRIN enforcement cannot come immediately. “We are aware that the child rights law is not enforced at the moment and this is deliberate,” he said. “We first want to sensitise the people on the existence of the law and its provisions and once we are sure they are fully aware of the law, we can then prosecute non-compliance with the law.”
Attempts to bar early marriage have come under severe criticism from Islamic clerics, parents and state parliamentarians in northern Nigeria, who say it contravenes cultural and religious norms of the region’s people.
Many people in the region cite fear of promiscuity as a reason to have girls marry early, according to NGOs.
There is a widely held belief that the longer a girl is unmarried, the higher the risk of her becoming promiscuous. Sex outside marriage is still a taboo, especially in rural communities in northern Nigeria where pregnancy out of wedlock remains the worst shame a girl can bring to her family.
“We are afraid our girls will become loose and end up being pregnant outside marriage if we don’t marry them early,” said 84-year-old Usman Bahago of Yammawan Fulani, a village 60km north of Kano. In this farming village, as in surrounding villages, most girls are married by the time they are 14 and in most cases to older men.
Older and usually wealthier. Poverty is another major driver of early marriage, Aisha Suleiman, project coordinator with the Kano office of Save the Children-UK, told IRIN.
|...We are afraid our girls will become loose and end up being pregnant outside marriage if we don't marry them early...|
“Most rural families are polygamous and find it difficult to feed their teeming children,” Suleiman said. “Marrying their daughters early means one less mouth to feed.” Northern Nigeria has the lowest per capita income in the country according to Nigeria’s central bank.
Suleiman said in most cases girls are married off to much older men with some means whom the parents believe will secure better living standards for their young daughters and help bail the family out of poverty.
But NGOs following children’s rights say early marriage only exacerbates socio-economic problems.
“It is a disaster to have 12 million girls of school-going age denied education and instead married off to satiate some inconsiderate person’s lust,” GIOPINI’s Mashi said. “Without education the lives of such girls are reduced to that of dependence and subservience.” GIOPINI estimates that 12 million girls aged around 13-14 are married in the region.
Early childbearing is a major cause of obstetric fistula -- a preventable condition in which tissue is torn when blood supply to the tissues of the vagina and bladder and/or rectum is cut off during prolonged obstructed labour.
Girls who choose to flee to avoid early marriage and childbearing face another set of problems. Some girls go to drastic lengths to avoid an early marriage, Hafsat Baba, director of ActionAid for seven northern states, told IRIN.
“In many instances girls who are unable to cope with their husbands run away and end up as prostitutes… A number of prostitutes will tell you that they were victims of early marriage and ran away because they couldn’t live with the husbands forced on them [by their parents]”, said Baba, who runs a reproductive health awareness programme in brothels.
She said most of the runaway commercial sex workers she sees test positive for HIV. “About 70 percent of the prostitutes I’m working with are HIV-positive… They are mostly illiterate and do not have the basic information on HIV [prevention].”
Many local and international NGOs consider long-held traditions first when working to discourage early marriage. Rather than directly targeting the custom, many try to get at it by championing girls’ education.
“By emphasising and showing rural parents the benefits of girls’ education we are indirectly telling them not to marry their daughters early,” Save The Children’s Suleiman said. “We have to be tactful in our approach otherwise parents will stay away from us.”