Child divorcees of Nigeria face a bleak future after fleeing abusive marriages

Across the country, one in five girls is married before the age of 15, according to the UN

Kaduna

By the time she ran away, Maimuna bore the scars of a short but brutal marriage. Her battered face swelled so much that doctors feared that her husband had dislocated her jaw. Her back and arms were disfigured by angry welts from the whipping her father gave her for fleeing to him. She was gaunt from hunger, dressed in filthy rags. And barely a year after her wedding, she was divorced.

It would be a tragic story for a woman of any age. But for Maimuna Abdullahi, it all happened by the time she was 14. "I'm too scared to go back home," she whispers, frowning as she fiddles nervously with her hands. "I know they will force me to go back to my husband."

Maimuna is one of thousands of divorced girls in Nigeria, children who were forced into marriage and have since run away or been thrown out by their husbands. They are victims of a belief that girls should get wed rather than educated, which drew the world's attention after Boko Haram terrorists abducted more than 200 schoolgirls two months ago and threatened to marry them off. Most are still missing.

Maimuna's former husband, Mahammadu Saidu, blames her few years of school for her "disobedience". A handsome man of 28 who is obviously proud of his ankle-high boots, he does not deny beating his wife. "She had too much ABCD," he says. "Too much ABCD."

Nigeria, a country of about 170 million, has one of the world's highest rates of child marriage. The custom of child marriage is still ingrained enough for a middle-aged federal senator to have married five child brides and divorced at least one.

Across the country, one in five girls is married before the age of 15, according to the United Nations. In the desperately poor Muslim north, where child marriage is often considered acceptable by sharia, that number goes up to one in two.

Abdullahi's former husband, Mohammadu Saidu Abdullahi's former husband, Mohammadu Saidu (AP)

This is also where Boko Haram is trying to impose its extreme vision of Islam, changing the face of the region and its girls. Yesterday, the group was blamed for a bombing on Friday in the northern city of Bauchi that killed at least 10 people in a building believed to have been a brothel. Children as young as five now hide their heads and shoulders in hijabs, a rare sight only a few years ago. Some girls become wives as early as nine.

There are no official numbers for just how many of these girls get divorced, often ending up destitute and shunned by their families. But they are all too visible. A few miles from where Maimuna lives, children her age and younger sell their bodies to truck drivers, flitting in and out of vehicles.

Maimuna was saved from this fate by Saadatu Aliyu, who has turned an old family home into a school for divorced girls. At the Tattalli Free School, which gets by on private donations, a couple of dozen girls gather in the courtyard for a sewing lesson. Toddlers mill around – the children of divorced girls who came in pregnant.

"Nobody knows how many thousands of them there are," says Aliyu, of the girls. "That's why we have so many prostitutes, and very young ones, in the north."

Maimuna grew up on the outskirts of Kaduna, in a half-finished brick building on the edge of a middle-class suburb. Her father, a farmer called Haruna Abdullahi, picks up a stone and throws it at a stray dog. At 45, he's been married for 30 years and has fathered eight children. "It's our culture to give our girls in marriage," he says. "From the age of 12, a girl can go to her husband's house."

His wife, Rabi Abdullahi, nods, and asks her husband's permission before talking. She too was a child when she married, although she does not know exactly how old.

"It is our way of life," she says. "In my day, a bride would never dare to run away."

She insists that her husband is not a cruel man, pointing to a well he built so she did not need to walk more than a mile to collect water.

A marriageable daughter can bring in a bride price and mean one less mouth to feed. So in late 2012, Maimuna's father arranged to marry his eldest daughter to his best friend's eldest son. The son, Saidu, paid a dowry of $210 for Maimuna – more cash than Abdullahi has had in his life. She was 13, and he was twice her age.

Maimuna Abdullahi's parents Rabi and Haruna Maimuna Abdullahi's parents Rabi and Haruna (AP)

Saidu says that he has known Maimuna all his life, and waited years for her to reach what he considers marriageable age. "We were always meant to be together." Saidu says he promised Maimuna she could carry on going to school. But he also worried. "If she is educated, she will be looking down on me because I didn't go to school, so she will be the husband and I will be the wife," he says.

Maimuna said she begged her father to let her stay in school. She had always been a good daughter, obedient, hard-working and popular with her friends. The link between child marriage and education is clear. Only 2 per cent of married girls in Nigeria go to school, compared with 69 per cent of unmarried girls, according to the UN. Some 73 per cent of married girls received no schooling, and three out of four cannot read at all.

Nobody prepared Maimuna for the marriage bed. There was no advice, no warning of what to expect, even from her married friends. Every day she was exhausted, and when she finally got to bed, her husband wanted to "bother" her, she says. He never kept his promise to let her go to school.

Maimuna bided her time until the rainy season was over and her husband went to town to find work. Nine months ago, she escaped to her father, begging him to let her return home. Instead, she claims he whipped her until her back was raw. Then he summoned her husband and forced her to go back to him. Abdullahi denies beating his daughter.

Saidu, humiliated and furious, slapped her repeatedly in the face, jerking her head from side to side with the force of his blows. She fled once again, first to a sympathetic aunt in a nearby village and then to a cousin in Kaduna. She now shares one cramped room with her cousin's family, just a short walk away from Tattalli school.

Her husband waited the customary three months to make sure there was no baby. Then he divorced her, as a husband can do under sharia by declaring the divorce aloud three times. He informed her parents of the divorce in a letter on 14 February.

Saidu says he no longer cares for Maimuna and will move ahead with his life. "This time I will marry a girl of 12, so that she will do what I want to do," he says. "Because if you marry a girl who is older, then she will not listen to you."

AP

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
people

Far-right organisation has defended its actions on Facebook

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you looking to work in Edu...

Nursery Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunity for a nursery manage...

EYFS Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - Benf...

English Teacher

£4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker