SPECIAL REPORT: From Marriage To Neglect: The anguish of Sokoto’s underage brides

While many other girls of her age would be under their parents’ watch, go to school regularly, and properly cared for, 12-year-old Fatimah Abdullahi was made to depart her parent’s home for her new home.

It was a blithesome day for Fatimah in 2013. The scorching sun was already making out its way and the day was filled with merrymaking at the veranda of her family house in Gidan Marayu, Sokoto.

Family and friends rejoiced with her as the DJ blared series of Hausa songs. She was well-costumed as a new bride that was about to be given out to her spouse, her face pan-caked and her fingers hennaed and manicured.

At 12, Fatimah was forcefully married to a man, without having her basic education. No schooling, no proper parental protection and no motherly monitoring as a child; regardless, she was betrothed at her tender school age.

Innocence Truncated

Fast-forward few more months after her wedding day, Fatimah began to face the reality of matrimonial troubles. Her husband, Salisu, was a poor farmer who could barely feed himself, let alone cater for a family. Tears, fear and anguish befell her as she conditionally seesawed from marriage to neglect in her husband’s house.

“I’ve been married for about five years now and throughout my marital life, I’ve encountered so many problems,” Fatimah told PREMIUM TIMES.

Clearly, Fatimah is facing the hell a child of her age should normally not face. Now 17, her marital challenges are enormous. Physically, she appears two times older than her original age. Out of severe poverty, she has lost one of her children who died of undiagnosed sickness because her husband could not afford their child’s hospital bills.

“My husband cannot take us to the hospital because he does not have the money and so, he complains all the time,” she said. “That is the reason my children are born in the house and not in the hospital. Now, I’ve lost one of my two children and only one is left with me,” she added, a wave of sorrow overshadows her facial wrinkles.

Ordinarily, children of Fatimah’s age, when she got married, should be in their Junior Secondary School. But the reverse is the case for her. She (Fatimah) wanted to go to school but was not allowed by her parents.

“I did not have the opportunity to go to school but I would really love to be educated,” she said.

Like some other states, especially in the Northern parts of Nigeria, underage marriage is encouraged in many parts of Sokoto. Thus, domestic and sexual violence, low access to education and marital rape are prevalent among the victims.

Heartbroken Hauwa

Like Fatima, teary-eyed Hauwau Abubakar narrates her ordeals to this reporter.

Hauwau had hardly finished her primary school education when she was espoused to Abdullahi, a petty trader in Sokoto. Hauwa can barely read or write.

She dropped out of her primary school, immediately she got married in 2012 at age 16.

“Why were you divorced by your husband?” this reporter asked. “The love between my husband and me suddenly smouldered few months after our marriage. He then one day uttered the divorce dictates to me angrily,” she replied.

Findings by this reporter revealed that the husband who divorced her is her uncle’s son. Their marriage barely lasted two years.

But what are the most disheartening plights of the broken-hearted Hauwau ever since she tread on the path of marriage to neglect? She explains the challenges she faced as a young divorced girl, who is abused and abandoned with her little child, Aisha.

“More than six years after I was divorced by my husband, I have not been into any serious relationship with any man. Dozens of men who have sought my hand in marriage have not been serious,” she told PREMIUM TIMES in a trembling tone. “Men who wooed me with their sugar-coated mouths dumped me no sooner than we started dating.”

Hauwau is not only jobless, she is hapless. She saunters around the streets on daily basis and is now being taken care of by her father.

“There has been no other man to take good care of me after the divorce apart from my parents. My father especially tries his best but can’t satisfy my want. I need a responsible man to take care of me properly,” she said.

Hauwau also speaks about how she is currently treated by her father.

“My father gives more attention to my younger sister who is not yet married. He cares for her needs more than he does for mine and ignores me most of the time,” she said.

Should Hauwau get financial aid, literacy is not a choice for her, she rather prefers petty-trading to schooling.

“If at all I have a financial support, I will like to venture into trading, selling some petty children jewellery,” she told this reporter.

More Tales Of Woe

Aaishatu Abubakar and Salaamatu Abubakar are not just siblings by blood, they also both experienced underage marriage. The duo were given out to their respective husbands at their tender school ages. Now in their 20s, they have both been catapulted back to their parents’ house by their spouses.

For Salaamatu (the younger sister), now in her early 20s, two different husbands have divorced her and pushed her into marital misery. She had hardly finished her Junior Secondary School when she was married off to her first husband. Few years after her wedding, Salaamatu was sent packing to her father’s house, only because her husband wanted another wife.

“My husband (Yahaya) divorced me because he wanted another wife, so he sent me away and replaced me with another,” she recalls, speaking in her local Hausa accented voice.

“After some time, I got married to another man called Abubakar. But then, the man is a liar and player. He lied to me while we were dating, unknown to me that it was a wretched man that was seeking my hand in marriage,” she said laughingly and then frowns to express displeasure over the issue.

“My husband lured me to marriage with his honeyed promises. He never told me he had another wife until I packed in. Most painful, he’s really not what he called himself.

“He couldn’t take care of us (his wives) properly not even when we were seriously sick. Most times we would borrow to feed ourselves because he was not responsible,” Salaamatu said.

With her only child, which was the fruit of her first marriage, Salaamatu has returned to her father’s house in Runji, Sokoto from her second divorced husband.

“My Husband, A Jobless Pauper”

“The major issues I faced in my husband’s house was that there was no proper feeding, no care, no work and in fact, my husband was a jobless pauper,” Aaishatu (the elder sister) said, highlighting the flaws that led to the fall of her early marriage.

Aaishatu speaks little Hausa-accented-English. Though in her mid-twenties, she recalls how she was married off in her childhood. Just like her younger sister (Salaamatu), her tragic flaw lies in her divorce. She made a flashback to how she was poorly treated by her husband.

Initially, Aaishatu said, she had little flair for education. But her flair for schooling would have been strengthened if her parents had not halted it by giving her out to a man at her school age.

“You know the character of our people… Once some of our men get married to a girl and she gives birth, they get easily irritated by the girl. So, they’ll replace her with another one,” she said.

“My husband divorced me because he wanted to marry another woman,” she added.

Aaishatu experienced same as her younger sister (Salaamatu) in marriage. She was also sent parking to her father’s house, with three children. The duo were made to witness marital tragedy in their tender ages.

Swirl, Swell Of Child Marriage

The tales of Fatimah, Hauwa, Salaamatu and her elder sister, Aaishatu are commonplace in Sokoto and many parts of Northern Nigeria, where forced underage marriage is still prevalent.

Child marriage violates the Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) 1 to 5, which focus and cater for eradication of poverty, zero hunger, good health care and well-being, quality education and gender equality, respectively.

According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the highest rate of girl marriage in Africa with over 50 per cent of women in the North married off before age 16.

Sokoto is one of the states in the North-west of Nigeria with high level of child marriage. Especially in the rural areas of the state, many school-age-girls are denied education, proper parental protection and other good things of life. Instead, they are married off at their tender ages. This applies to some other states in the North-west and North-east of Nigeria.

This situation contributed to Nigeria being estimated to have about 11.5 million out of school children in 2013, according to data released by UNICEF

Child Not Bride, a global initiative and organisation that shows concerns in curbing child marriage, also provides some data about Nigeria.

“In Nigeria, 43 per cent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday. Seventeen per cent are married before they turn 15.

“The prevalence of child marriage varies widely from one region to another, with figures as high as 76 per cent in the North-west region and as low as 10 per cent in the South-east.

“While data shows a nine per cent decline in the prevalence of child marriage since 2003, action is needed to prevent thousands of girls from being married in the coming years,” Child Not Bride data shows.

Traditional Bondage

Tradition, culture, religion and superstition all play roles in the prevalence of child marriage in Sokoto.

Sokoto is a predominantly Muslim state with the Islamic religion having a great influence in the lives of most residents. Thus, the culture and tradition of residents are intertwined with Islamic religion. The marriage of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha who was underage, by today’s standard, is still very influential among many Sokoto residents.

This reporter met Tukur Abubakar, an Islamic cleric and traditional leader in Gidan Marayu, Sokoto, who expatiated on the tradition of the Sokoto people on marriage.

“We don’t use the age to determine a girl’s readiness for marriage. We look at her maturity and how well she can take care of a home.

“Sometimes, one will find a girl at 13 with a very mature sense of responsibility and the ability to take care of herself and her husband. But, some girls at 15, they can’t take care of themselves let alone their husbands or children. So, we don’t look at age, we consider the level of maturity,” Mr Tukur told PREMIUM TIMES.

He explained that, traditionally, education is not a requirement for marriage. He said culture does not take the issue of education into consideration when it comes to getting a girl child married.

“In most cases, the highest a girl child goes in education is primary school. Immediately after that, she is considered ripe enough for marriage. It is now left for her husband to decide whether she should continue her education or not,” the cleric said.


The Child Rights Act

In spite the 2003 passage of the Child Right Act in Nigeria which prohibits underage marriage, the practice still thrives in Sokoto.

“No person under the age of 18 years is capable of a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever,” Part III Section 21 of the Nigeria Child Rights Act states. Also, Part III Section 22, which prohibits the betrothal of children, maintains that, “no parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person.”

A contravention of either Section 21 or Section 22 therefore, amounts to a fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of five years or both.

Some states have, however, argued that the act needs to be domesticated by their own state parliament to become law. Sokoto is one of nine such states yet to domesticate the law.

A reasonable number of the Sokoto married girls are denied some of their fundamental human rights, such as: right to education, freedom from violence, reproductive rights, access to reproductive and sexual health care, freedom of movement, and the right to consensual marriage, due to the scourge of child marriages in the state.


“Blame Parenting, Not Marriage System”

The Director of Sokoto Women Affairs and female activist, Aisha Abdullahi, said the parents should be blamed for marrying off their primary-school-age girls and not the Islamic marriage system.

“Blame the parenting, not the actual marriage institution,” Mrs Abdullahi says. “It is the decision to marry off the children that has a problem, not the marriage itself. If any parent decides to send his girl child to school, he would not marry her off early.”

She also speaks on why the Child Rights Act is yet to be domesticated in Sokoto.

“Talking about Child Right Act, what is stopping its domestication and why it is not accepted in Sokoto; there is the fear that if Prophet Muhammad has not prescribed a particular age that a girl should be married and if the ‘ulamas’ (group of Islamic scholars) have not sat down and set a particular age bracket for marriage, why should a group of people sit and decide when a Muslim man should marry off his daughter?”

She, however, called for proper orientation of the parents who give their girls out, denying them their basic rights.

“It is when we point accusing fingers at the parenting that we now have to create awareness, go to the parents, talk to them, change their philosophy so that they can understand that it is better for them to send their girls to school than marrying them off early,” she said.

Reporting for this story was supported by YouthHub Africa and Malala Fund


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