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Monday, September 02, 2013

Child Brides Disgrace!

Nigeria's child brides: 'I thought being in labour would never end'

Though child marriage is prohibited under Nigerian law,
a toxic blend of routine and religion continues to ruin
young lives
MDG : Child bride in Nigeria : Zainab Oussman  refused, and stayed in schoo
Nigerian child bride activist Zainab Oussman, 16,
in Kwassaw village. At 14, she refused to marry,
instead staying in school.

Ibrahim Kanuma winces as he recalls the moment
a 63-year-old man asked him for his teenage
daughter's hand in marriage. The proposal was not
unusual in north-western Nigeria's remote, dust-blown
state of Zamfara, but he considered the suitor too old
for his only daughter, Zainab, 13.
"Even if he had been aged up to 50 – OK. But that old,
he'll soon die and leave her lonely," says the civil
servant in his peeling office in Gusau, the state
capital. To protect his school-aged child from the
crushing stigma of widowhood, Kanuma instead
gave his blessing to a union with a "reasonably aged"
 colleague – in his 40s – even though such a betrothal
is illegal.

For Kanuma and many others in northern Nigeria,
the recent outcry over child marriage is puzzling.
Zainab's marriage is prohibited under Nigeria's
Child Rights Act, which bans marriage or betrothal
before the age of 18. But federal laws compete with
age-old customs, as well as a decade of state-level
sharia law in Muslim states.
MDG : Posters about sexual health for women in Nigeria : VVF and FGM  
Warning posters about female circumcision and 
fistulas. 

"I wouldn't force my daughter to marry somebody she
doesn't like, but as soon as a girl is of age
[starts menstruating], she should be married,"
Kanuma says.

Four of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child
marriage are in west Africa's Sahel and Sahara belt. In
the years when rains or crops fail, so-called "drought brides"
– who bring in a dowry while being one fewer mouth to feed
– push numbers up dramatically.

But the practice came under scrutiny in July, when
legislators tried to scrap a constitutional clause that states
citizenship can be renounced by anyone over 18 or a married
woman, apparently implying womencan be married under 18.
The obscure ruling will have little direct impact on the one
in four rural northern Nigerian girls married off before they
turn 15, but it reveals
prevailing attitudes in a nation with acute gender disparity.


A successful vote was later derailed by senator Ahmed Yerima,
who in 2010 married a 13-year-old from Egypt. A former
Zamfara governor who
introduced a rigidly enforced version of sharia law in the north
in 2000, Yerima argued that a married girl was considered an
adult under certain interpretations of Islamic law. That prompted
outrage. "Does it then follow that the married girl who is
below 18, at election time, would be permitted to vote?" says
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer and child rights advocate in the
northern capital of Kano.

Other grassroot Muslim activists, however, fear the oxygen
of negative publicity trailing the high-profile Yerima, coming
most vocally from non-Muslims, could trigger a backlash among
conservative, rural Muslims. This would threaten painstaking
progress towards modernisation over the past decade.

In the week headlines erupted over Yerima, Aisha, nine, was
quietly rushed through the corridors of Zamfara's Faridat Yakubu
general hospital. Its cheerful cornflower blue walls belie stories of
the hidden horrors of early marriage. Aisha does not have the
words for what happened to her on her wedding night. Her husband,
she says, did something "painful from behind".

Nearby, Halima was on her third visit in three years. "I like it here.
It is the only time I ever see a television," she says. Just shy of 13,
the newlywed came under pressure to demonstrate her fertility.
"I thought [being in labour] would never end," she adds softly.

In the tradition of the rural Hausa people of the north, women are
expected to give birth at home. Crying out while in labour is seen as
a sign of weakness. But after three days close to death in her village,
Halima begged to be taken to a hospital. By the time her relatives
had scraped together enough to ferry her to the state capital, it was
too late.

The baby had died.

The prolonged labour left Halima with a fistula, which causes
uncontrolled urination or defecation. "Fistulas can happen to anyone,
but are most common among young women whose pelvises aren't at
full capacity to accommodate the passage of a child," says Dr Mutia,
one of two practising fistula surgeons in Zamfara.

Despite the obvious link, he is reluctant to blame child marriage for
Nigeria having the highest global rate of fistula. "The problem is not
early marriage. It is giving birth at home," he says.

Small victories

There have been small victories in reversing the ripple effects of
early and forced marriage, defined as forms of modern-day slavery
by the International Labour Organisation.

Fifteen years ago, Zamfara's statistics director, Lubabatu Ammani,
carried out a census to record the number of girls attending
secondary school in the state. The results were shocking: fewer than
4,000 girls were enrolled out of a population of 3.2 million.

"It was a combination of dropouts, early marriage and religious
misinterpretations," explained Ammani, who proposed creating a
female education board to help remedy the problem. "We asked all
the local emirs and found the main problem was that parents didn't
want girls who had hit puberty to be in co-ed schools."

Female enrolment in Zamfara is at its highest since independence
five decades ago, with 22,000 secondary school students. On most
days, Ammani visits wavering parents to encourage them to keep
their daughters in school.
Ammani welcomes the reawakened debate on child marriage but
warns of its limits: "The fact is, a lot of people [here], when they
hear the campaigning is by people from a different tradition or
religion, they won't agree with it."

Others are more blunt. Haliru Andi, who served as Yerima's top
aide while he led the call for sharia, bristles at the idea of interference
with his faith. "How I even use the toilet, how I share my time with my
family – everything is contained in my religion," he says in his
Persian-carpeted living room. "How, then, can I take instructions from
anybody who does not have a deep understanding of Islam?"

Cultural norms further muddy the issue. Posters outside Mutia's office
exhort against another disturbing practice related to child marriage.
In one,a woman is being forcibly restrained on a woven palm-frond mat.
An assistant grabs her legs; another sits on her chest, and yet another
reaches between her legs with a razor blade.

The scene shows a common recourse when a child bride refuses to sleep
with her husband, prompting her parents or in-laws to drag her to the  
wanzan, or traditional barber. "This traditional barber, he doesn't
understand anatomy. He thinks there's something obstructing the girl
down there, and that's whyshe fears her husband. So anything he sees,
he will just use his knife to cut it,"
Mutia explains. "They think they are helping."
None of the northern-based grassroots Muslim activists the Guardian
interviewedwanted to go on the record about child marriage – reflecting,
says one activist, the difficulties women face "going against the grain".

The storm of Twitter and online commentary has translated into a
handful of protests in the more liberal south, which is predominantly
Christian but also home to millions of Muslims.
In the tiny village of Rigasa, flanked by baobab trees and fields of millet,
Nafisa, 14, draws letters in the powdered maize she grinds every morning
for herself and her in-laws. A-B-C-D, she writes. It is all she remembers.
"My husband gets angry any time I asked him if I can take up my schooling
again, so I stopped asking. But my heart is in school," she says.

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