Child brides in Nigeria are often crippled by childbirth. Their injuries lead to incontinence, shame and exile
Ramita Navai in Kano
In a small, dimly lit brothel in the red-light district of Kano in northern Nigeria nearly all the young prostitutes lined up on plastic chairs are runaway brides.
“I was married when I was 15 years old. I was forced into it,” said Hadiza.
Whenever her husband attempted to consummate the marriage, Hadiza would flee to her parents’ home, but they kept returning her to the man to whom she had been married off.
Finally her husband raped her: the attack was so violent that Hadiza was sent to hospital.
“We have no choice. If you’re not married by the time you’re 16, people think there must be something wrong with you,” she said. The girls around her nod silently - some of them had been forced to marry when they were only 12.
Northern Nigeria has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world: nearly half of all girls here are married by the age of 15.
The consequences have been devastating. Nigeria has the highest maternal mortality rate in Africa and one of the world’s highest rates of fistula, a condition that can occur when the pressure of childbirth tears a hole between the vagina and the bladder or rectum. Many women are left incontinent for life. Up to 800,000 women suffer from fistula in Nigeria.
“They marry young, they get pregnant young, they deliver young and they pick up the fistula,” said Kees Waaldijk, the chief consultant surgeon at the Babbar Ruga hospital, the world’s largest fistula clinic, in the northern state of Katsina.
Most cases happen to young girls during their first pregnancy, and nearly half the patients at Babbar Ruga are under 16.
Dr Waaldijk operates on up to 600 women a year, with no electricity or running water. He sterilises his equipment in a steel casserole pot that sits on a gas camping stove. Rows of girls and women - some as young as 13 - lie listlessly on rusty hospital beds, each connected to a catheter.
The smell of urine is overpowering and many of the women have been cast out from their communities. Some have been divorced by their husbands - it is estimated that up to half of adolescent girls in northern Nigeria are divorced. “If nothing is done the woman ends up crippled for life: medically, socially, mentally and emotionally,” Dr Waaldijk said.
The Nigerian federal Government has attempted to outlaw child marriage. In 2003 it passed the Child Rights Act, prohibiting marriage under the age of 18. In the Muslim northern states, though, there has been fierce resistance to the Act, with many people portraying it as antiIslamic. “Child marriage in Islam is permissible. In the Koran there is no specific age of marriage,” said Imam Sani, a liberal cleric in the northern state of Kaduna. He said that this was the root cause of the opposition among the more hardline mullahs, who believe that matters of Islamic “personal” law - marriage, divorce and inheritance - must be governed by the Koran, not the state.
“The Muslim clerics have a problem with this Child Rights Act and they decried it, they castigate it, they reject it and they don’t want it introduced in Nigeria,” Mr Sani said.
He said there would be serious repercussions if the federal Government attempted to impose a minimum age of marriage. “There will be violent conflict from the Muslims, saying that ‘no, we will not accept this, we’d rather die than accept something which is not a law from Allah’.”
Half of Nigeria’s 36 states have passed the Act, but it has been adopted by only one of the dozen Muslim states - and even that one made a crucial amendment substituting the age of 18 for the term “puberty”.
Each state in Nigeria has the constitutional right to amend legislation to comply with its local traditions and religion, meaning that central government is powerless to impose a minimum age of marriage.
Other vocal opponents to the Act include village heads and elders - almost all men - highlighting the tribal and cultural constraints that hamper attempts to stamp out child marriage.
“It is important we have the right to marry our girls young so there is no risk of pregnancy outside marriage. It is to preserve the purity of our girls,” said Usman, an 84-year-old man from the village of Yammaw Fulani, who married a 14-year-old girl four years ago. “We will never accept this law,” he said.