At 20, Esther Akan says she shoulders the burden of a 40-year-old and she does not look her age. As she strides through a bush path, on a sunny day in December 2021, with a basket on her head, her three-year-old daughter lets out a shrill scream.
Esther has no job and is pregnant. She became a farmer who only cultivates on their family’s small plot of land primarily to feed herself and her daughter. She also takes some to the market to sell whenever there is a surplus of her farm produce.
Five years ago, Esther was an SS2 student at Community Secondary Grammar School, Ikot Essien, Ibesikpo-Asutan, Akwa Ibom State. Then 16 years old, she got pregnant by her former schoolmate who had turned 30 already. She moved in with him as his wife and stopped going to school, a decision she says she now regrets.
In January 2021, her husband passed away shortly after confirming Esther was expecting their second child.
“I regretted taking that decision (early marriage). Instead of gaining, I am now suffering more than before,” Esther told PREMIUM TIMES.
In Nigeria, child marriage is defined as the union between two people in which one or both parties are younger than 18. In Akwa Ibom, the age of adulthood is 16. The United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 43 per cent of women in Nigeria aged between 20 and 24 got married before their 18th birthday. About 17 per cent were married by their 15th birthday.
Also, 80 per cent of those married before 18 gave up education as did 39 per cent of those married before 15.
While child marriage is predominant in northern Nigeria, with Jigawa having the worst situation with 90 per cent of girls less than 18 marrying in the state, the phenomenon also exists in southern Nigeria – albeit at a relatively lower scale.
Four states with the highest incidence of child marriage in the south are Ogun, Oyo, Delta and Akwa Ibom, with 29 per cent, 23 per cent, 23 per cent and 22 per cent respectively, according to the UNICEF data.
In Akwa Ibom, many people view such unions as illegal as they often do not follow the traditional means of getting married. In many cases, when a girl gets pregnant, their parents simply hand them over to their abusers and insist they be married. This is common with girls from poor homes.
“What you are seeing here are illegal unions between young girls and men. They do not follow the proper marital procedures so we cannot call them marriages,” said Michael Udoaba, a traditional birth attendant and community leader at Okop Ndua Erong community of Ibeskpo-Asutan area of the state.
“Most of them are impregnated at an early stage, some at 14 years old and some at 15 or even less, once that happens, they will move in to stay with the man that is responsible for the pregnancy.”
That often means dropping out of school.
In 2018, Akwa Ibom had the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the country, second only after Kano. The state recorded 581,800 children who were not in school while Kano had 989,234, according to the Universal Basic Education Commission, UBEC.
In terms of gender spread, Akwa Ibom had the highest number of out-of-school female children in the country with 298,161. The closest contender, Sokoto, recorded 270,586.
Back to Esther
Esther, the first of five children, lost her father at age 12. Her poor mother took farming jobs to feed her five children, and Esther managed to go to school after being sent off to work as a house help.
She became pregnant at 16 and moved in with the man, Ernest Ukpe, a former schoolmate. There were no rites to formalise the union, but they were referred to as a couple nonetheless.
Esther said her hope was to have some support from the marriage for her poor family. She stopped going to school.
“When I lost my dad, my mother was just a housewife and doing anything. Things were not easy for me and my siblings, we could not afford house rent and food, so we decided to relocate and join our grandmother in the village,” Esther said.
Although Ernest had managed to complete secondary education, he had no job. They struggled daily to feed and Ernest repeatedly beat her, she said. But she stayed back with the man nonetheless.
“My mother had said that marriage is all about endurance,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
In January 2021, after four years together, Ernest took ill and died shortly after the couple discovered Esther was expecting their second child.
“Even when he fell sick, there was no money to take him to hospital,” Esther said. A few months later, her newborn had a fever and died.
Amid hardship, Esther relocated from the small apartment they lived in to be with her grandmother in her native village, Ikot Udo.
“I am traumatised emotionally and I’m hoping for help from God,” she said in between sobs.
Angelina (real name withheld), 17, another young mother from Ikot Obio Ndoho village in Mkpat Enin Local Government Area, also left school before she became a teenager.
Like Esther, she too said she has suffered immense abuse at the hands of the man she calls husband.
“My husband always abuses me; most times he uses wood or plank to beat me. He always said to me that his father beat his mother to death, therefore, he can also beat me to death as well and nobody will do anything,” Angelina said.
“Most times, he abuses me and my family members verbally. He will not give me food for like 3 to 4 days. Anytime I informed my mother about what is happening in my marriage, my mother always advised me to endure and stay in the marriage, that marriage is all about tolerance,” the mother of one lamented.
Angelina, who cried uncontrollably while narrating her story, said she refused to report her husband to the police or any other security operatives due to the fear that her husband might kill her.
She narrated how things were difficult in her family after losing her father at a tender age and how she had to leave school then, at Primary six.
“After the death of my father, I could not continue in school again due to the difficult situation in the family. My mother alone struggled a lot to feed me and my siblings, in order to raise money and support her, I decided to start working as a salesgirl for someone and it was in that process that I met my husband.
“I planned to go back to school when things improve in my family, but when my husband met me, I could not resist him because I needed support and because of the early marriage, I was not able to go back to school anymore,” Ms Enobong added.
Stemming the tide
The Akwa Ibom Government says it has campaigned intensely against early marriage and the results have been coming in. In 2020, the government enacted a law banning marriage below the age of 16.
In other words, while the Nigerian government through the Child Rights Act recognises 18 as the age of adulthood, it is 16 years in Akwa Ibom.
“We have our own Child Right Law in Akwa Ibom State and the set age is 16 years,” the Deputy Director in the Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Justice who is also a Director in the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Response Unit, Akwa Ibom State, Emem Ette, told PREMIUM TIMES.
She said the government is against child marriage, therefore such practice is an offence in Akwa Ibom State.
“In Akwa Ibom State, if a child under the age of 16 is raped or impregnated by a man, whether she gave her consent or not, as far as the law is concerned, someone that is below the age of 16 cannot give consent and so whoever that impregnated her should be reported to the police and prosecuted for raping that child,” she said.
She said the government was opposed to the practice of parents handing their wards to their abusers to marry.
“No parents should carry their child and say because you have impregnated my child, you should marry my child, it is not right. The law is against it and that is violence against person prohibition law, the law is very clear about early child marriage in the state,” Mrs Ette said.
She said the government’s effort was paying off, and there were fewer cases of child marriage. What the government is more concerned about now is dealing with teenage pregnancy, she said.
According to the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, 2018, the adolescent (15-19 years) pregnancy rate in Akwa Ibom State was estimated at 12.8 per cent. It was the third-highest in the South-South region after Bayelsa’s 19.9 per cent and Cross River’s 14 per cent.
Since coming to power, the Udom Emmanuel administration of Akwa Ibom has given attention to the menace, with inspiration drawn from Mr Emmanuel’s wife’s declared passion for the girl-child.
Mrs Emmanuel in 2015 launched the Family Empowerment and Youth Reorientation Programme (FEYReP) to address the problem of teenage pregnancy.
“One of the major focuses of FEYReP will be on how to prevent teenage pregnancy. Some of these girls are victims of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. According to the 2012 Gender in Nigeria Report, one in every three girls aged 15 to 24 experience violence,” Mrs Emmanuel said during the launch of the programme, as reported by Vanguard newspaper.
The group advocates the prevention of teenage pregnancy and the promotion of the education of the girl-child.
The State Commissioner for Women Affairs and Social Welfare, Ini Adiakpan, acknowledged that teenage pregnancy remains a problem in the state.
“In Akwa Ibom, how do we protect the girl child? The government has put in place some legal framework to protect the child; we have the Child Right Act, the gender policy among others. We also have free and compulsory education, which embraces both the male and female children and at that point, every child is expected to be in school,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We teach them etiquette, we bring in role models who have achieved and succeeded to tell them how they did it right from childhood to adulthood and ensure that they specify that it was not smooth all through, that they had problems to become who they are. We believe that will strengthen them, raise their self-esteem and build their capacity to withstand pressure from within and without their families.
“In trying to reduce poverty and idleness among young people, we have introduced a lot of skill acquisition programmes. We also have technology incubation centres where we call for training, handpick people and send for training as well. These steps will help them to become useful citizens to themselves and to society.”
Despite these efforts, the problem persists. More young women are leaving education due to pregnancy and childbirth.
In 2020, Blessing Inyang, 17, returned to the village after a few years in Lagos with her aunty. She continued her education but soon dropped out of school after getting pregnant.
“When I returned from Lagos last year, I entered a relationship that did not last long and it resulted in pregnancy. The person that is responsible for the pregnancy had travelled to Lagos early this year to look for a job. Before then, I did not know I was pregnant.
“When I realised and I informed him about the pregnancy, he said I should abort it and I told him I cannot do it, since then, he refused to call me and has not been picking my calls anymore,” Blessing said.
Blessing gave birth a day before her interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
The new mother constantly sobbed as health workers from a non-governmental organisation, who introduced her, administered medical care on her. She complained of intense pain in her lower abdomen.
“I am crying not only because of the pains, but also the fact that I cannot continue in my education as expected. I registered for the WAEC and NECO examination; the pregnancy stopped me from writing the exam,” she said.
“My mother is late, it is only me and my father and he always told me that he is disappointed in me. My father is the one taking care of all the bills here. My boyfriend doesn’t pick my calls or send money to support me,” she added.
More than missing education
Besides missing out on school, many victims of early marriage and teenage pregnancy in Akwa Ibom suffer severe violence at the hands of their so-called husbands.
FHI360/AHNI, a non-governmental organisation focused on combating gender-based violence (GBV), said it recorded scores of cases of GBV in Akwa Ibom last year.
In 2021, the highest number of sexual assaults the group recorded was in September, which had 23 cases, followed by June with 22 cases recorded in the month, according to data it shared with PREMIUM TIMES.
One of such victims of GBV in the state is 20-year-old Glory Udo. Also from Mkpat Enin, she got married at age 15. She discontinued her education after her Junior Secondary School Examination (JSS3) when she became pregnant. Her plan to return to school did not happen after childbirth.
She became a second wife and according to her, her decision was influenced by hardship. She has since suffered immense violence, she said.
“I am married to a man that has two wives and I am the second wife and also the youngest wife,” she said. “My husband always beats me with cutlass whenever we have misunderstandings.”
Glory, who was pregnant when she spoke to PREMIUM TIMES, said she relocated to her family house so she could get care, and anytime she decides to visit the man to request money, she would always end up fighting the first wife.
Many of the young women also face a potentially debilitating health problem as their young bodies overlabour to carry pregnancies and deliver their babies.
At a private centre on the outskirt of Uyo, the state capital, a team of non-governmental health experts work to save women from Vesico vaginal Fistula (VVF) and Recto Vaginal Fistula (RVF), defects that arise either from poor care during childbirth or underdeveloped body unable to bear the rigorous strains of child birth.
Between January and September this year, the team from Family Life Centre/VVF Hospital at Mbribit Itam told PREMIUM TIMES it worked on several VVF cases, but at least 13 of the patients were between 13 and 18 years.
The figures recorded this year by the Mbribit Itam team so far are the highest in the last four years, data reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES show.
The centre said in the underage mother category, they recorded eight, five and 11 cases in 2020, 2019 and 2018 respectively.
“Most of the childbirth and sexual-related complications witnessed among the young girls is as a result of prolonged labour faced by young girls due to immature body system during childbirth,” Thompson Ntiense, the centre’s secretary, told PREMIUM TIMES.
NGOs and community efforts
Many NGOs in the state work to respond to the challenges of early marriage and teenage pregnancy and their attendant health problems.
FHI360/AHNI, a non-governmental organization operating in the state, said it has a standard procedure once a case of sexual abuse is reported.
“When a Gender-Based Violence case (rape) is identified, the client is tested for HIV and pregnancy test. If the results show negative, you are placed on PEP (post exposure prophylaxis) for 1 month. Then we ask the client to come back for a retest after 3 months.
“In terms of other violence and even the rape cases, we place them on LIVE support then ask if the client needs police intervention. They mostly decline because of fear,” Charity Charles, the group’s focal person on GBV said in an email response to a PREMIUM TIMES enquiry.
The organisation partners with governments, private sector and civil society to provide lifesaving healthcare to people, especially in the rural areas, advocating against gender-based violence, rendering support to internally displaced communities and among others.
At the community level, Mr Udoaba, the traditional birth attendant at Okop Ndua Erong community, said they have also taken measures to stem the tide of teenage pregnancy.
“Whenever we have town hall meetings with parents, we always put it as one of the agenda of the day, we always inform parents about educating their children and not exposing them, most especially through street hawking. Hawking here exposes girl children to problems,” he said.
“Though some of the parents said they cannot do without sending the children to go and hawk because it is one of the ways they use to fend for their education, we advise them on the age that should be allowed to hawk. We said from 17 or 18 years and above it should be allowed and it has to be at open places like the market.” Mr Udoaba, also a secondary school teacher, added.
A woman community leader in Ikot Akpa Ntia village, Essien Udim Local Government Area, Arit Udoma, said that the community council, churches and other groups in the community have taken steps to discourage child marriage, teenage pregnancies and gender-based violence in the community.
“We are doing everything possible to stop the practises in our community,” she said. “In our church, we grouped the young people into groups, we organise seminars and sensitization exercises monthly to sensitise them, informing them of the risk and dangers involved in those practises.
“For the offenders, the village set stiff penalties to whosoever caught in such a (GBV) habit.”