In spite of the existence of the Child’s Rights Law and its status as Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan and most enlighten state, child and forced marriages still go on in several communities in Lagos unabated, reports BETTY ABAH
Amina Hassan spotted the signs with much trepidation. First, they came for her eldest sister, Zainab and two years later, they came for the second eldest, Maimuna. After another two years, when they came for her as soon she turned 16 like the other two before her, as usual with the gleeful wedding party in tow, Amina bolted with all the strength in her sprightly teenage legs. It was only a few months to her Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (SSCE).
“No, child marriage is not for me; my education first”, she blurted under her breath as she fled her home in the Ajegunle area of Lagos.
‘”I ran away from home to stay with a school friend of mine but my family and that of the groom waited patiently for me for those three days’, Miss Hassan recalled. “My father was no more so it was my uncle who was in charge. When I made a brief appearance at home to check if they had left, he got hold of me, beat me black and blue and said I was disgracing the family and shaming our tradition,” She said.
The next alternative was to seek refuge with the police. So, Amina again sneaked out and reported at the nearby Ajegunle-Boundary police station.
“But I received the shock of my life because some of my family members came and after some talk with the DPO, the story changed”, she said. The DPO took a long look at her and asked her to ‘cooperate’ with her family members as they had her best interest at heart.
“I looked him in the face and asked: ‘If I were your daughter, would you also say the same thing—that I should cooperate with them and get married at age 16?”
The obviously ruffled police officer, whom she remembered as having ‘bold, unforgettable tribal marks’, berated her for being a stubborn girl and promptly discharged her case from his station. The wedding party disappeared in great sorrow.
Thus, given up by both family and the police, Amina went on to finish her secondary school in that same year (1993), and university education at the famous Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and went on to obtain a Masters Degree, the very first person and woman in her generation to accomplish that feat.
Though Amina set herself free by her determination and sheer guts, her two other sisters, Zainab and Maimuna who could not, have continued to live with the consequences of child marriage, decisions made entirely on their behalf by their elderly relatives.
Amina still recollects their ordeals with heavy heart. Fragile-framed Zainab had been tricked into a party ostensibly held in her uncle’s house in the Oregun area of Lagos not knowing it was her own traditional wedding. She was later taken to Asaba in Delta State where her elderly husband, a polygamist, was waiting for her. She later ran back home from her elderly husband, unable to cope.
But the most dramatic was that of her sister Maimuna. ‘We had all prepared for school that morning and were all in our school uniform,’’ Amina recalls. Our uncle addressed Maimuna and told her no school for her that day as her husband had come for her. She had no idea who the man was or what he looked like. “My uncle had made the choice on her behalf. We all started wailing. Our neighbours’ children also came and joined in the wailing, but it was too late as a station wagon was already parked outside ready for her. They took her away in her school uniform. She was in SS1 at Oregun High School and was one of the best in the entire school, always coming first or second’.
Maimuna was virtually bundled and taken to Chad from where, unable to cope with the domestic work (including cooking for her husband’s large extended family), she ran back to Lagos, selling her belongings along the long lengthy and traumatic way from Chad to Lagos heavy with pregnancy, giving birth and losing the child thereafter. Like her sister before her, Maimuna never went back to school.
“My sisters were very intelligent and were well known in school for their brilliance, but these people just ruined their lives’, said Amina, established the Shuwa Arab Development Initiative (SADI), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), after graduating from the university in 2009, to try and right the wrongs of the past and save other girls from the ordeal of girl marriage.
Through SADI, she has facilitated the education of more than 100 children, boys and girls among the Shuwa Arabs (an indigenous community with roots in North East Nigeria) in Lagos.
The above occurred mostly in the early 1990’s and therefore it could be assumed that child or forced early marriage is a thing of the past in Metropolitan Lagos, Nigeria’s most developed and most urbane city.
Yet, Aisha Nasirudeen, 19, sitting, stroking her three children’s heads idly in the face-me-I-face-youcompound of her rundown house on Odo Street in the Obalende area of Lagos, did not just portray the picture of urban poverty. She aptly personified the victim of an on-going and vibrant tradition of child marriage in settler communities across Lagos as relevant government agencies entrusted with the responsibility of acting against it, continue to look the other way or engage only in lame rhetoric.
“My ambition was to become a doctor, but now I know I can’t achieve that dream anymore. My son Yahaha will achieve it for me”, said Aisha who was married off four years ago when she was barely 16 and in Senior Secondary Two (SS2).
Quiet and tall Aisha, with features akin to that of a model is one of 28 children of a prominent alfa(Muslim cleric) who hails originally from Katsina. She is the last of three wives of Alhaji Mohammed Nasirudeen, who hails from the Upper Volta region of Ghana but converted to Islam and adopted Bornu as his state. He was formerly a disciple of Aisha’s cleric father.
In a tone oscillating between sarcasm and seriousness, Aisha’s husband, Nasirudeen, 44, who runs a thriving restaurant in Obalende, says marriage was the best option for his wife. “You know some of these girls that have a tendency to be stubborn,’ he said, smiling from ear to ear and revealing his beautiful golden tooth. “it is always better to marry them off as soon as possible. It is for their good”, he added with relish.
nlike Nasirudeen, Garba Abu, 55, who came to Lagos 25 years ago, is a repentant man. The Jigawa State-born man who, after over two decades as a security guard, now runs an almost empty kiosk at the College Road in Ogba area of Lagos, and doubles as a water vendor, had given out his three daughters Bintu, Saratu and Sadia as teenagers. Now, with the little earnings from his small businesses he and his wife ensure his younger children,Aminat, 13 and Muritala, 9 get a relatively good education. They are currently pupils in the nearby African Church Primary School, Ifako-Ijaiye.
“There is so much difference between a person that goes to school and the one that didn’t,” he said, casting a distant look at his shrinking wares. “It is easy for an educated girl to get a job because she understands English while the ones that doesn’t understand English loses job opportunities.’
A neighbour who has known the Garbas for several years recounted how one of the daughters, already in secondary school and doing very well, was ‘plucked’ off to her husband’s house. ”On the day of the ceremony, we asked her who her husband was but she told us that she hadn’t met him yet and that one of her sisters had gone to check his place where she would be moving to later in the evening, and that is when she would see him for the first time”.
Forced marriages such as the above have sometime led to tragic situations such as the one involving Wasilat Tasiu, a 14-year old bride who poisoned and killed her husband, Umar Sani, and four other guests in Kano a few days after she was married off, in December 2014. According to her, she committed the crime in order to realise her dream of acquiring an education. Another tragic incident involved Rahama Hussaini who killed her husband, Tijjani Nasiru, in March 2015 in protest over being forced to marry the man who was her cousin.
Child marriage, with its devastating consequences on the overall welfare of the girl child remains one of the sore points and clogs in the wheel of Nigeria’s progress. The country, according to UNICEF, has the highest rate of girl marriage in Africa with over 50% of women in the North married off before or by age 16.
According to a recent report by Ford Foundation, about 48% of girls in Nigeria, predominantly in rural areas, are married off before age 18. Cases of Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF), maternal mortality, have been on the increase especially in rural areas. Also, according to a 2013/2014 UNESCO report, Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, numbering 11/5 million. This owes mostly to economic hardship and government’s indifference to children and the non-implementation of the Access to Universal Basic Education law in addition to the on-going anti-western education insurgency in the north.
Out of this figure, girls are in the majority. The gross lack of interest in girl education and welfare in many regions across Nigeria’s has given rise to child marriage as economically-hit families want to ‘do away’ quickly with their girl children so as to give priority attention to their boy counterparts.
Child marriage not only deprives a girl of education and her childhood but exposes them to sexually transmitted disease such as HIV especially since they are unable to negotiate for safer sex.
A 2014 report by UNICEF titled ‘Ending Child Marriage, Progress and Prospects’ indicates that though child marriage in Nigeria has reduced by one per cent annually in the last 30 years, hundreds of girls are still at risk due to Nigeria’s peculiarly large population. It further revealed that of the world’s 1.1 billion under aged girls, 22 million are already married. The global body also expressed fears that if there is no reduction in child bride practices, up to 280 million girls will be married before age 18. That could even increase to 320 million by 2050 owing to population growth.
Besides, child marriage directly hurts the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Goal SGD 5 which focuses on gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls.
Forced marriages and the impunity thereof is exemplified by the globally known case of the more than 200 girls abducted from the Government Secondary School in Chibok Town, Bornu State, Northern Eastern Nigeria in April 2014 by Boko Haram insurgents. According to their leader in a recorded interview, the girls had been married off. Two years later, despite the worldwide #BringBackOurGirls campaign, not only have 219 of the girls captured from their hostel rooms had their educational dreams aborted, they are yet to be found.
‘Lagos State Government looking the other way’
However, while the reports and researches on girl marriage prevalence have focused on rural areas and especially the North fora long time, recent findings have revealed a steady culture of girl marriage in communities in urban areas such as Lagos. Girl marriage is prevalent, even if at a comparatively reduced rate, in settler communities and secluded populations of the Hausa-Fulani, Nupes, Shuwa Arabs and as well as minority populations from Benin Republic and Togo. The communities include Makoko, Kofiganmen sea side area of Badagry, Ojo, Agege, New Okoba, Ijora, Marine Beach among several others across Lagos.
Makoko, Lagos’ largest slum, a predominantly fishing community which hosts a pout-pouri of ethnicities drawn from across Nigeria, Togo and Benin Republic, is a classic case. According to a report by an NGO, Action Health Incorporated, Makoko has the highest number of teenage mothers. While many of the surveyed and the current are pre-marital pregnancies, hundreds of others are child brides.
On a recent evening as the sun set over Makoko and the impoverished community assumed its rambunctious train of routine evening commerce and camaderie, Juliana Idowu, 17, Rhoda Awahajinu, 16 and Sena Kobozina, 20 sat exhausted in a shop, after the day’s task, fielding questions impatiently from this reporter. They were warming up to go home so as to perform their usual wifely responsibilities of cooking, washing, feeding their children and pleasing their mostly young husbands in a variety of ways. The young mothers and wives have many things in common. Each had a child, each was married and each had her education cut short in order to take on marital roles and is currently learning vocational skills, mainly hairdressing or tailoring. Other than concentrating on their skills, owning their own shops ultimately and rearing healthy children, none had any more ambition. Like hundreds of other girls in the community, some of them became pregnant between ages 14 and 15.
Yet a rather more worrying trend in Makoko is that of some parents are not only forcing their teenage daughters into marriage once they become pregnant, but compelling their them to marry much older men in that condition, with the pregnancy.
In this category are Bose Nge, 14 who is pregnant, Elizabeth Avonzetin 18,mother of two, Jane Zanu, 18, also a mother of two and Olorunwa Humgbe Louis who lost her first baby and is pregnant with a second one. While Zannu’s twin brother is in a French school in Badagry, her sole ambition now learning tailoring and being a good mother and wife. All became mothers and wife as teenagers.
“Here, once a girl becomes pregnant, she is expected to identify the boy or young man that is responsible. The girl’s family thus organises a marriage ceremony and sends the girl off to live with the boy as his wife, and if he is still with the parents, she goes to live with them”, said Mariam Kusika, 24, mother of three and herself a victim of child marriage.
The only snag, she added, is when the boy denies and the baales (local chiefs) would wade in. “But most times the girl’s parents are not disposed to keeping her and would quickly ‘dispose’ of her ‘free of charge’ to any willing person alongside her pregnancy. We have seen so many of such cases here,”said Mrs. Kusika, who, after learning from her mistakes, is now hoping to go back to school later this year, and currently earning a variety of skills and running a girl empowerment club.
Paulina Vigan, a trader and mother of one of the pregnant and hastily married Makoko girls, corroborated Kusika’s claims. Her daughter is fourteen years old. And she has no regrets.
‘My daughter is very stubborn,’ she said, her forehead furrowed in a blend of anger and grief. ‘I thank God the parents of the boy who impregnated her accepted and took her in. Our traditions has no room for unwanted pregnancies and the boy who impregnated her is just about 17 years and in JSS Two. If they had refused, I would have sent her far away where nobody knows her until she gives birth or better still, give her and her unborn child to an old man, who might be willing to take her in as the third or fourth wife so as to reduce the stigma. Besides tradition, I couldn’t even have coped because I am just a poor trader and my business is not generating much profit and she has siblings I still have to fend for. I am so sad that she can’t go back to school again, if I had the money, I would have wanted her to become very educated, because I really liked her’.
‘’Child marriage has serious negative consequences for these girls,’ says Bimbo Oshobe, a community worker in Makoko. ‘Besides the health implications due to their unripe bodies, we have discovered that many of these child marriages don’t last because most times both the husbands and wives are too young and inexperienced and therefore unable to handle so many issues. Sometimes too, some of these men are even old enough to be their fathers’, she added. Oshobe advised the Lagos State Government, rather than being detached, to carry out sensitization program or partner with grassroots ngos that would reach the people with the relevant messages and orientation.
Adewale Akintimehin, 74, a retired police officer who has lived in Makoko since 1963, echoes Oshobe’s complaint. ‘The politicians come every four years with promises but we hardly see any of them fulfilled. And, when we demanded to know why, they would either say ‘Rome was not built in a day’, or that they were not the ones in the office in the previous term,’ he said, downcast. Akintimehin however hoped that ‘this Ambode regime would be better than the last one in terms of education’.
“We have seen girls of 14, 15, 16 years, some even 13 getting married here,” he said. Once they are physically developed, they want to identify with a man, or when they are asked to repeat a class,” he stressed. He also blamed the trend of negligence on the parts of some of the parents and peer pressure.
A respected, outspoken community leader and founding member of the influential The Act of Apostle Church in the locality, Akintimehin said the church and community leaders were working towards reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy and child marriage by encouraging school enrolment.
‘We are now preparing for the annual ‘Makoko Day’ and one of the features of that day is the donations of free WAEC forms to both our boys and girls who are ready and who have passed through some tests to be administered’, he revealed, insisting that things would have been better had government been more attentive.
Amidst the challenges, Akintimehin is highly celebrated in Makoko as being an exemplar in promoting girl child education. By ensuring his first daughter, 44 year-old Ibukun Elizabeth delay marriage and obtain a university degree, he is happier and prouder for it. Ibukun now has a Master degree and lives happily with her husband and two children in Finland and invites her father for occasional holidays. Even in absentia, she remains a Makoko ‘girl hero’.
Abdullahi, a youthful leader of the bustling Hausa community in Agege Pen Cinema area and graduate of the Lagos State Polytechnic, spoke in the same vein. ‘They are so many children here, both boys and girls that are not in school. No government official has ever engaged us to know what is happening here or to try and enrol them in school’ he told this reporter in the office of theSeriki, local chief of the market. The Hausa population here, constituting itinerant traders, artisans and sometimes beggars has increased astronomically since the on-going insurgency particularly in the North East. By all calculation, with lack of education and government’s interest, many of the girls there who currently hawk fura da nunu (cow milk) around the railway side market risk being married off early.
A lot more sensitization, enforcement of law needed
Several attempts in the course of three weeks, to interview the Lagos State Commissioner for Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation (WAPA), Mrs. Lola Akande , failed. However, a source at the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation (WAPA) who craves anonymity insisted that the government was trying its best in ‘responding to the cases as they happen.’ ‘The fact that armed robberies happen does not mean the police doesn’t exist’. He urged affected persons to report to the nearest police station as the stations are now armed with human rights and family units.
He further pointed at the Lagos Child Rights Law 2007 which made profuse provisions outlawing child marriage. Also, only in February, he added, the state launched a well-publicised campaign titled ‘Ending Violence Against Children in Nigeria: Priority Actions: Lagos State’, which is was a multi-sectoral response to the 2014 Nigeria Violence Against Children Survey. The launch campaign has the backing of UNICEF, USAID, US Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention and other agencies.
However, Princess Olufemi-Kayode, a child’s rights activist and anti-rape expert and Executive Director of Media Concern for Women and Children (MEDIACOM), argued that government needs to do a lot more if child marriage must become history in Lagos State. “Just like the rest of the states that have passed the 2003 Child Rights Act, the issue is about enforcement”, she said.
Olufemi-Kayode also blamed lack of communication between government and the masses, especially the uneducated. ‘How much of information about such laws do the general public have? Even the police that are supposed to enforce the law don’t even have the necessary information.’ She advised the government to embark on massive public awareness including exploring the use of local languages that are accessible to the masses in addition to utilising such medium of mass communication as the ubiquitous and effective radio. ‘Child marriage is rape by another name because these girls are minors. It disrupts their lives and we must do everything to stop it,’ she added.
According to Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, a human rights lawyer and Executive Director of Spaces for Change, an ngo, girl marriage anywhere in Nigeria is a pointed violation of the rights of children and of country’s constitution.
‘The Nigerian Constitution puts the statutory age of adults at 18. Anyone lower than that is a minor and cannot give consent, and marriage is a decision that requires consent and consent cannot be given by a minor,’ she said.
For citizens below the age of 18, the Constitution imposes certain obligations on states to protect their interests and welfare. Section 17 (3)(f) of the 1999 Constitution requires states of the federation to direct their policies towards ensuring that children, young persons and the aged are protected against any exploitation whatsoever, and against moral and material neglect.
Keep in mind that the child rights legislations follow the tenor of the Constitution. Child Rights Act criminalizes having carnal knowledge of a child below the age of 18. This has been interpreted to mean that 18 years is the legal age of consensual sex in Nigeria. Child Rights Act applies in twenty-four (24) states of the federation (including Lagos) and the Federal Capital Territory.
‘The fact is that though Lagos is a rapidly urbanising and metropolitan society, we must know that Nigeria is basically a cultural society. The traditions and religious practices and dispositions have a great influence over people and so even when come to Lagos or other big cities, those cultures still guide and inform their private lives,’ she added.
Echoing Olufemi, Ibezim-Ohaeri maintained that the Lagos State needs to enforce the Child Rights Act it so vigorously passed to safeguard children within its territories.
‘Having a law is a good step but people being aware and the government enforcing the law is another thing. The enforcement mechanism of the state needs to develop to a stage where it can enforce all the provisions of the Child Rights Act. They have taken some steps like setting up family courts but a lot of gaps need to be filled. Public education can play a major role. The people need to be sensitised as to the risk they put their daughters through. They need to know they are putting their daughters’ life, health, education, and futures at risk, I believe they will consciously make the decision not to marry out their daughters. They get to need to get to that level of consciousness so they can make informed decisions about their daughters’ futures.’