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TRADITIONAL BONDAGE: How Sokoto’s underage girls are left in dooms of child marriage

Like many other girls they’re born, but at their very tender ages they’re forced into marriages that most times push them to dooms. They’ve no rights as children because child rights are prohibited and violated in Sokoto State, IBRAHIM ADEYEMI writes.

She buried her two hands under her long, brown-coloured purdah; clad in a fading wrapper, winking her eyes, somewhat shyly as she sat gently in her looping room.

Barakat Hamzah

It was a buzzing day in the city of Sokoto and the sun rayed aggressively. Barakat Hamzah seemed reserved telling her stories to the visiting reporter, yet she had conceived too much pains, she said, and she couldn’t bear it any longer.

So, while unrolling the mats of her woes, she spoke briefly and carefully and avoided making eye-contacts with the journalist throughout the 30-minute interview at her residence in Kofar Rini area of the state.

Barakat would have concluded her secondary school education and would have probably been awaiting admission into her tertiary institution of choice this year. But she had to drop out of school when her parents dragged her into marriage – a step she wasn’t sure she wanted to take at that time.

“I didn’t even know if I was ready to get married at that time. Still I got married, at age 15,” Barakat said curtly, recounting how her childhood was taken away like a piece of cake.

Now 18, Barakat was married off to a 22-year-old man, without her consent, some three years ago when she had hardly rounded off her junior secondary education.

But the marriage ended up all in doom.

Read also: Obaseki wants stiffer laws against rape, child abuse

BROKEN MARRIAGE, SHATTERED HOPE

Barely a year after the gleeful marriage that brought both families together for celebrations, Barakat’s acclaimed husband suddenly got fed up with her. He then pronounced the disbandment of the marriage just by saying “saki” – the Hausa lingo for passing the verdict of divorce – to the young bride.

And abruptly, the union ended.

“I wasn’t even expecting it when he divorced me,” the girl said.

Barakat said she regrets the fact that she wasn’t given more time as a girl before forcing her into marriage.

“Things would have been different if I was up to the age of 18,” she said.

Now jobless, Barakat has a blank hope of re-enrolling to continue her education, and the next thing her parents are planning, she said, is to get her another suitor and marry her off again.

Young Barakat said she has been made to become a regular visitor of Mallam Aliyu Kofar Rini, a man known for getting suitors for divorcees in Sokoto.

THE SCOURGE OF CHILD MARRIAGE

In 2003, the Federal Government passed the Child Rights Act that outlawed any marital activity with any individual below the age of 18. But the law needs domestication to be effective in many Nigerian states. And Sokoto is not an exception.

Over 17 years today, 11 out of 19 states in Northern Nigeria, including Sokoto, are yet to domesticate the bill.

According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of child brides in the world.

In north-western Nigeria, where Sokoto is situated, 68 percent of girls were married before their 18th birthday.

Also, a 2017 World Bank study estimates that child marriage costs Nigeria USD7.6 billion in loss of earnings and productivity every year.

TRAPPED IN THE CAGE OF MARRIAGE

Hafsat Mukhtar

At age 15, Hafsat Mukhtar had already had two different divorces. Her first marriage had hardly lasted a year when she started feeling trapped in the village where her marital home was situated.

“I spent almost a year without visiting my parents,” she groaned. “At a point, I started feeling trapped in the village. I ran home, but I was brought back.”

Few months later, she got a divorce letter from her husband, Abdullahi, who was then in Lome, Togo.

“He was in Lome, Togo, when he called his father to write me a divorce letter,” she recalled.

And that was the end of the marriage, said Hafsat. “And I have no idea of what I did to deserve the sudden divorce from my husband.”

THE MATRIMONY OF MANY DEBTS

Hafsat got married again, this time to a tricycle rider simply identified as Abdulrahman. They had two children before the said marriage was broken.

“Abdulrahman was worse,” she said, closing her eyes and shaking her head pitifully. “He only got me a set of clothes when I just got married to him.”

But the child bride never knew happiness in her new home.

“He wouldn’t feed me and would beat me whenever I complained,” she said. “Sometimes, I got food from my mum and also made some sales from sewing clothes.”

According to Hafsat, her husband Abdulrahman had an elderly sister who would always visit to collect money from him to pay debts incurred for their wedding ceremony.

“I always wondered what debt it was. He didn’t buy me anything after we got married. One week after my wedding, all the foodstuff in the house was sold off to pay a debt I knew nothing about; food that was supposed to last more months only lasted for less than a week,” she lamented.

One day there was a little rift between her and her husband, Hafsat said. Her husband asked her to fetch him some water to wash his tricycle but she declined the errand. So, they broke up.

“I was already fed up, so when he pronounced the divorce word, I was happy to leave him,” she said, recounting how her second divorce happened.

Young Hafsat, now 23, after her second divorce experience tried to enrol herself in a school but barely a week after starting the school, her father rejected the idea vehemently. His reason: “Western education corrupts children.”

Hafsat now attends an Arabic school in the morning and sells fried potatoes and yam in the evening at Kofar Kade area of the state.

‘CHILD RIGHTS NOT ACCEPTABLE IN SOKOTO’

Aliyu Kofar Rini, chairman of the Islamic Marriage Mediation Organisation of Nigeria in Sokoto, scorned the Child Rights Act, saying that it contravenes the cultures and traditions of the people of Sokoto State.

A girl-child, Kofar Rini said, should be married whenever her parents deem it fit to do that – or whenever she is physically fit for marriage – regardless of her age and maturity.

“Some girls develop quick interest in having affairs with men at their very tender ages. So, parents have to get such girls married early so they won’t bring shame to the family, else they will give birth out of wedlock,” he said.

When asked whether he was aware of the Child Rights Act and the implications of violating the laws, he argued that “the Act is a western culture”.

“We have Islamic books that guide our actions. We’ve witnessed tutors having sex with their girl students. So it is best to get the girls married early,” he said. “If her husband is okay with her going to school afterwards, then it is fine.”

He also faulted the calls for the domestication of the Child Rights Act in the state and advocated the drafting of another one that takes religion and culture into consideration.

“Honestly, I think that is wrong. Why not ban child marriage alongside fornication and other vices? When you stop a girl from getting married early and didn’t stop her from engaging in unlawful sex, you’ve not done anything” he said. “This is western philosophy and it is different from ours. We have religious books written by Islamic scholars that could be used to draft such laws.”

Rashidah Mohammed, a legal adviser for Child Rights Protection Network in Sokoto, noted that children have rights but “Child Rights is not acceptable here (in Sokoto) because some sections, particularly the age of marriage, contradict the teaching of Islam”.

Mohammad, however, said she had accurately learnt that a committee has been constituted to look into the Act and make possible amendments that suit the culture of the people where necessary so it can be passed in Sokoto State.

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