Taiwo Aweda was just 16 years old when she was married off to Lawal Ahmed. She got pregnant one year into her senior secondary education at Ilogbo Government Secondary School, situated in Ojo Local Government Area of Lagos State.
“I met my husband when I was in JSS 3 after which I got pregnant for him a year after I got into SS1,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
In August 2019, Ms Aweda, then a pregnant teenager, was pressured by her parents to move in with her husband’s family, who were living in Imude, a community in the heart of Ojo Local Government Area of the state.
She told PREMIUM TIMES that the union, which lasted barely a year, kicked off after an introduction ceremony attended by a few representatives from both families.
“We got married when I was just four months pregnant,” she said.
“The ceremony was attended by a few people from both my mother and father’s side. Same with him, he came with representatives from both families.”
After she gave birth to her daughter Aishat, Ms Aweda said, she was subjected to maltreatment in her husband’s family house. This, according to her, impacted her health as she experienced severe pain in her lower abdomen, raising suspicion of gastric ulcers.
“During my stay at my in-law’s family house, I was mistreated a lot, especially his mother. Also, I was barely fed despite the fact that I just had my baby. As a result of that, I was always having stomach pain and I visited a nearby pharmacy where I was treated for ulcers.
“A time came when my mother came visiting. She saw how lean I was and how I was being treated, she went back home to inform my dad; that was when my dad said I should come back home. And said I will only go back to my husband’s house when his family is ready to complete the entire wedding ceremony,” she narrated.
It is over a year since the sanction by Ms Aweda’s father and no one from her husband’s family has made efforts to complete the marriage rites. Yet, she takes her 2-year-old Aishat to her husband’s family’s house every weekend.
Ms Aweda, now 19, has resorted to working as a sales representative at a building material shop to assist her five siblings, her daughter, painter dad and trader mother.
From her N20,000 monthly salary, she has also been able to register for tutorial classes to aid her educational preparation, in a bid to further her education.
For Ms Aweda, the day starts at 5:00 a.m. After domestic chores, she has 2-year-old Aishat to drop off at the creche, a job to resume to and tutorials to attend in the evening.
Being a single mother is stressful but Ms Aweda said she is coping despite her hectic schedule.
“Happily married at 16”
Unlike Ms Aweda who dropped out of school to tie the nuptial knot, Abidat Omidiji, 20, completed her secondary education and got married at the age of 16 years in Imude.
Mrs Omidiji said she is happily married with two children. She said her union with her husband was solemnised according to the Islamic rites.
Mrs Omidiji, who does not know her husband, Abeeb’s age, described him as a very caring and loving husband who had established a shop for her where she sells footwear for both genders.
She said she met Abeeb during her junior years at Ilogbo-Elegba Junior Grammar School, a government-owned school in Ojo Local Government Area.
“I got married at the age of 16 years old, the same year I completed my secondary school education and my vocational training in tailoring sometime in 2018.
“He’s a plumber working here in the Imude community in Ojo LGA. And he has been very nice and caring to me and a good father to his children. He established a shop for me, where I sell shoes for both males and females also in this Imude community.”
Asked if she plans to further her education, she said it is a decision to be made subject to Mr Omidiji’s approval.
“On my education, I would still love to go back to school, to complete my education only if my husband permits. If he says yes, I would, and if he says no, I wouldn’t,” she said.
Prevalence of Child Bride in Imude Community
Located on the outskirts of Ajangbadi after Shibiri, Imude is a developing community with a river that flows from Ojo through Igbede.
Child marriage is said to be prevalent in Imude. According to Bella Foundation for Child and Maternal Care (BEFCAM), which referenced government records at Imude Maternity and Healthcare Centre, out of every 10 women that visit the health facility for antenatal clinic and delivery, four are young girls between the ages of 12 and 17 years.
A 2019 Focus Group Discussions (FGD) survey conducted by the non-governmental organisation revealed that four out of every ten girls marry before the age of 17 at Imude, thus preventing the girls from further education or acquiring skills that can empower them economically.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES, the group’s programme manager, Bella Akhagba, said girls in Imude, between the age of 15 and 17 years, are getting married as a result of unwanted pregnancy, poverty or due to cultural factors.
‘’We as a foundation we have been able to identify and train survivals of child marriage. And these girls were also trained as advocates against child marriage through advocacy skills,” Ms Akhagha, whose organisation is based in Ojo Local Government Area, said.
“We also gave them skills in soap making, hand sanitisers to empower them financially to sustain themselves and their families.”
She noted that the group’s advocacy birthed the drafting of a bye-law against child marriage in Ojo LGA that awaits passage into law.
‘’The major challenge we are having is that most of these girls do not want to come out because of shame and stigmatisation associated with them getting married at an early age.
“Also, the majority of them want to establish a small scale business and the ones that want to return to school have made efforts by rewriting their WAEC but the challenge is funding to empower these girls.”
Rita Amaocha, a matron at Imude Maternity Health Centre and an advocate against child marriage, buttressed Mrs Akhagba’s point, adding that teenagers account for 40 per cent of the antenatal visits to her centre.
‘’In this maternity home, I do a record of about 40 per cent of antenatal visits for teenagers. I have recorded girls in the age group of 13,15 and 17 years. There are too many.
‘’And when you tell them these girls are not mature, and they need attention they will divert themselves to a traditional medical centre. One in question is a girl of 16 years that we managed.’After her delivery, I referred her to a general hospital, only for her to end up in a church where she died.”
She explained that many of them end up with complications such as ‘symphysis, symphysiotomy, and severe anaemia.’
Both Ms Akhagba and Ms Amaocha want the government to ensure the laws against child marriage are domesticated at all levels across the country.
Child marriage: A public health concern
Child marriage remains a public health and developmental concern in Nigeria. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defines child marriage as any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age.
According to a 2018 UNICEF report, more than one-third of girls in Nigeria are married off before their 18th birthday, thus placing the nation among countries with the highest number of child brides in Africa.
The practice is also illegal, according to the Child Rights Act, which was passed in 2003 and pegged the age of marriage at 18 years old.
About 18 years after the passage, only 27 of Nigeria’s 36 states have domesticated the law. Other states yet to adopt the law are majorly Northern states like Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Zamfara, Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Borno and Adamawa, Kebbi, Zamfara, Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Yobe.
Experts say there is a strong link between Child Early Forced Marriage (CEFM) prevalence and endemic poverty, poor education outcomes, school dropout rates, and poor access to basic social, economic and healthcare services.
Maryam Uwais, a special adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on social investment and founder of the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative, said child marriage is prevalent in many of the communities where poverty is endemic.
“Parents, and fathers especially, actually benefit from the dowry and extras that their daughter’s suitor contributes to the family of the girl child,” she said in a report published on Jihadwatch.
Although believed to be more rampant in the north, a 2021 report by Save the Children International, highlighted the prevalence of child marriage in southwestern states where the Child Rights Act has been domesticated.
The report, titled ‘The State of the Nigerian Girl Report: The Diagnosis of Child Marriage and Girls Education in Nigeria’, says 11 per cent of girls dropped out of school to get married in southwest Lagos State. While seven per cent of those who dropped out of school to get married received a primary school certification, ‘seven per cent received a secondary school certificate.’
‘Bad parenting’, reason for high number of child marriage
Ariyo Baba-Bose, the Chairman of Imude Local Community Development Area (LCDA) blamed ‘bad parenting’ for the prevalence of the menace in the community.
‘’It is a very big issue, and a serious matter, the parents have to make up their mind to ensure that their children do what is right. Not all of us can afford to send all our children to higher institutions but primary and secondary education.
‘’When we bring up children that we cannot train and cater for, what do we expect, you have no control over such children, It starts from the home. And the great blame goes to the parents. If what you can afford is two children why not accept that and be content with it.”
While the community leader said he is not against learning a vocation, he encouraged parents to make plans for their children’s education.
‘’To solve this issue of child marriage, everybody, including parents stakeholders must first be willing to work against it. And not the government alone,” he stated.
The Obi of Imude community, Aguedu Clement, insisted that poverty as a cause cannot be ruled out.
‘’Poverty also contributed a lot to the situation. When you look at the homes in our society, you will see a family of ten living in just a one-room apartment. There are some kinds of things you do not have to exhibit in front of children, for them to be seeing it when they are too early. There are inevitable things in life,” Mr Clement said.
Parents should prioritise training their children, Victoria Bolujoko, an activist and politician at the Ojo LGA said, urging parents to look beyond money
”On the government side, they need to organise seminars for parents to let them know the importance of training their children because it’s when the child can take care of him/herself they can now take care of the parent,” she further stated.
Not only Imude
The outlawed practice is not only rampant in the Imude area of Lagos, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings revealed.
Hauwa’u Ahmed was forcefully married off by her father at age 13 but the union was called off when she was 17.
She said her three-year-old marriage was called off before the traditional leader, Sarkin Kabiru of Ebutemeta Adekunle, after her father alleged that the estranged husband was not a Nigerian but from Gabon.
Ms Ahmed, a trader at Idi-Araba Surulere, who is now 47, was born in the Maroko Obalende area of Lagos. She recalled that the divorce happened during a clash in the state between Yorubas and Hausas.
“I got married in Yaba Adekunle Lagos State, at the age of 13 and I have given birth to 9 children. I had one child from my first marriage.
“I can say I didn’t like my first marriage because I was forcefully married,” Ms Ahmed said, explaining that her first marriage at a young age caused severe troubles for her both medically and emotionally because it fueled disaffection at her subsequent marriage.
“Though I was happy when I divorced my first husband at a young age, even though he was a good man to me, and very handsome. He’s Fulani from Kebbi state, but I later heard he’s not Nigerian, and that caused a lot of controversies and led to our divorce. But I didn’t like him without any reason, and I can say that the experience of hatred affected my other two marriages.”
However, due to the fragility of her reproductive organs being a teenager, she experienced a cut during childbirth.
“A girl at the age of 13 cannot give birth so in most cases they end up having difficulties during childbirth. I remember during my first child delivery I had a terrible cut because I was too young to have a baby at the age of 13,” she said.
A woman may end up dead due to complications such as Vesicovaginal Fistula, she added.
Vesicovaginal fistula, or VVF, is an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder (vesica) and the vagina that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault.
“I am calling upon parents if you love your child your girl child do not give her away for marriage at a young age. This issue is a serious issue because it affects the girl’s life like a wildfire.
“Marrying off your child at the age of 13 is not a good thing but marrying off your child at a mature age let me say 18 is better but 12 or 13 is a terrible idea so I am calling on the parents to please and now their girl child grows before giving them out for marriage,” Ms Ahmed said.
Activist calls for abolishment
Toyin Taiwo-Ojo, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate, said child marriage is not justifiable and age-long cultural and religious practices permitting it should be abolished.
“Yes, it may be more common in some places than others but that does not mean it doesn’t exist nationwide,” she said giving examples of different communities across the country where child marriage is common.
Many of them, practising this heinous act, hinge it on tradition and practice of the Prophet Muhammad, she reiterated.
“If we go back in time, this was a time child marriage was prevalent, all over the world, even in Europe. Many Islamic nations have now, like the rest of the world, departed from this absurd practice and have placed the age of marriage at 18 years,” she said.
“This is because medicine has discovered that when ladies less than 18 years bear children, there are often medical complications. In fact, it is said that the best age of reproduction is between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.”
Government, Citizens, NGOs should work together
Lai Olurode, a professor at the Sociology Department of the University of Lagos called on the governments, not-for-profit organisations and other concerned citizens to work together by either adopting the children exposed to becoming child brides or providing them with skills.
This, he said, would prevent the children from becoming a burden to society.
“I would say we would have to intensify the advocacy to discourage people from marrying early. The bottom line is that people should learn how to bring to the world the number of children they can take care of.”
The don spoke on the social impact on girls who go into early marriage.
“They can even have all sorts of complications during their reproductive lives. The child mortality rate for children who are married at an early age can be high because they cannot afford to eat good food. And do not forget life only begins during pregnancy.
“They may not be able to afford good food during pregnancy. they may be lean and not be able to withstand many months of pregnancy,” he said.
Lagos Authorities React
When contacted, the Director Child Department, Ministry of Youth and Social Development of Lagos State, Olubukayo Odukoya, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, highlighted the efforts of the state government in solving the menace of child brides despite the Lagos Child Rights Law 2007, which prohibits child marriage.
Ms Odukoya said the state is working with a network of other ministries including the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Justice, and the Office of the Public Defendants (OPD) in collaboration to help solve the problem.
“We have the Child Protection Unit of the Ministry of Youth and Social Development that responds and prevents every form of abuse in the state,” she said.
“Early marriage is a form of abuse and we (Lagos) are working in collaboration with all other agencies, as you know that child protection issues cannot be done by one ministry,” she said.
According to the official, whenever a case of child marriage is identified, the state government ensures such a child is kept in protective custody for further investigations.
She said the ministry also works directly with the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) to ensure prosecution of culpable persons.
Many of the children do not come out to speak, she said, as one of the challenges her office faces.
Ms Odukoya urged members of the public to report cases of abuse and child marriage to the state government.
“If anyone finds anybody that is being abused, such a case can be reported to our various social service offices in all the local government areas of the state so we can take appropriate actions.
“And we also have the child protection network, which is an organised non-governmental organisation that also prevent and respond to cases of abuse and child marriage in the state.
“Whenever we identify an abuse, what we normally do is to ensure that we put the child in protective custody for further interrogations.
“We have seen cases of early marriage that have been reported. And we as a state ensure we speak to the parents and families to know why that has been done. And how we can rescue the child.
“Then we have social workers in all school, those children when getting to school they report to their teachers and if any teacher identifies a child that is abused in any form, we have hotlines: 09077333426, and 08172457792 that can be reported so that action can be taken.
“We also create awareness by going across schools to ensure that these children speak out. Most of the children don’t speak out but we encourage them to speak out whenever they are in danger and try to let them know that this is where they can call and report to this office so action can be taken.”
Asked about the actions taken on parents, the official said, “Anybody that is found guilty, we normally do, we work with the Ministry of Justice, and we work directly with the Directorate of Public Prosecution DPP which we refer to and they handle the justice aspect of the matter.
“And what we normally do when there is an issue of poverty, we refer them to the ministry of women affairs is in charge of vocational training. And try to empower them by giving them skills and providing them with start-up kits to start up.”