A pregnant teenager

As Nigeria’s recession bites harder, the girl child is worst affected- forced out of school and into early marriage. TAIWO ALIMI investigates ways to break this seemingly unending vicious circle of poverty.

THE room is somewhat stuffy; the air filled with the smell of baby urine and dirty clothes. Its main occupant- Katsina-born local guard, Kabiru Mohammed, pointed at a corner of the small and grimy space. He hails from Katsina in northern Nigeria. “Mariama, are you awake,” he said, addressing his wife.

Taken aback by the visitor’s intrusion, Mariama struggled to get up from the multi-cultured mat on the floor where she laid with their newborn.

“Good morning, sir,” she greeted and retreated to her corner while her husband hurdled into a squatting position by their baby.

The visitor-this reporter- had called under the guise of gifting the baby money.

Mohammed (45) calmly launched into the story of how he and Mariama, young enough to be his daughter became husband and wife, adding gusto into the tale like a warrior boasting about his conquest.

Mariama was barely 12 when her parents accepted Mohammed’s proposal.

“I used to send money to her parents to pay for her school fees, because I want her to understand and speak English. Last year, they asked to come for my wife because they could not afford to send her to school any longer.”

Religion and tradition

Mohammed does not see Mariama as a child. “My mother had me at the age of 13,” he announced. “In my tradition and religion, as soon as a girl starts menstruating she is ready for marriage.”

By the Nigeria Child Rights Act (2008), the relationship between Mohammed and Mariama is considered illegal and marriage or betrothal for girls above 18 are legal, but in some parts of Nigeria this amount to nothing more than exercises in futility.

Mariama, who turned 15 this January, put to bed three months ago, and the chances of going back to school is nil.

That Mariama did not suffer vestico vagina fistula (VVF) at delivery was a miracle according to Dr. Demola Adewusi, head doctor at Broadland Hospital Ogun state.

This is because Mariama and her husband live below poverty line and could not afford the hospital bill in Nigeria.

“My Oga (master) took her to the hospital his family uses and paid for her antenatal and delivery,” explained Mohammed.

Though Mariama was lucky to go through without a scratch, Silifatu (16) wasn’t so lucky.

She also dropped out of school at 15 to wed her father’s choice of husband- a twice married, 52 year old man.

Growing up in a village close to Damaturu, Yobe State, under peasant parents, she is accustomed to hard work and life.

Thin and disheveled, she was determined to learn how to write and read, and often walk 10 kilometers to attend the community school at Damaturu.

Nevertheless, education is never an option for Silifatu, as marriage is principal.

Like Mariama, her marriage was quickened by recession and flood that spoiled their crops. Short of funds and food to cater for his large family, her father simply married her off; a matter of one less mouth to feed.

Sadly, she is not alone. “Four of my friends also left school to get married,” she mourned.

Silifatu later suffered VVF and she is now an inmate of University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan where free surgery is available.

Teen pregnancy upsurge

Recession is also the chief cause of teen pregnancy in Nigeria’s cities.

Stella Okafor (not real name) falls into this group.

Her father took to okada (motorcyclist) business after losing his white-collar job last year. Her mother — a petty trader- also closed down her shop due to low funding.

“I had to stop schooling because my parents said I should allow them concentrate on my two brothers,” complained Stella in a vacant tone.

The decision became her undoing as she sought compassion outside home and today, at 16, is in the family way.

Stella may never see the four walls of classroom again. The poverty cycle revolves viciously.

One thing is common with these girls; they have been cowed by the man-dominated system; commanding father, bossy husband and superior brother.

Fatal statistics

According to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS), since Nigeria fell into recession in the second quarters of 2016, 2.6million Nigerians have lost their jobs, bringing the figure to 22.45 million while consumer prices increased by 18.72 percent. Sadly, the girl child bears the brunt mostly.

Yet, Ghanaian scholar, Dr James Kwegyir Aggrey believed women are the bedrock of development in any nation. “If you educate a man,” he wrote, “you educate one person. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

Buttressing, Africa health, Human & Social Development Information Service (AFri-Dev) reveals a close linkage between development, girl child education, forced marriage and under age child bearing.

It records that eight states in Nigeria have the worst record of female illiteracy: Kebbi, Sokoto, Bauchi, Jigawa, Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina and Gombe, little wonder they are among the least developed states in Nigeria.

“Nigeria still contributes the higher number of out-of-school children. Education of women leads to development and growth and, if we take it seriously it will impact on our growth,” noted Dr Abiola Akiyode Alabi, director Women Advocates Research & Documentation Center (WARDC).

Dr Adewusi talks about more government legislation, investment, awareness, and empowerment of girl children. “Even without formal education, a girl child should learn a trade or commerce and government should support them with fund.”

The Nigeria Child Right act (2008) prohibiting child marriage is law in 23 out of 36 states.

Dr Oyeyemi Akinajo, a maternal medicine specialist reasons that government incentive would also help. “If you want to negotiate with parents to send their children to school, there must be a motivation; either it is free or for a little fee. They can’t afford it even if they want to.”

She said it is line with Europe’s latest plan to inject €88bn into Africa. Neven Mimica, EU Commissioner for International Development and Cooperation said it would translate to billions of euros in investment to Nigeria and Africa in extension.

“I had to stop schooling because my parents said I should allow them concentrate on my two brothers,”

Dr. Adewusi queried, “If the U.S can budget $9bn (about N3.15tn) annually on teen pregnancy, and EU wants to raise €88bn for Africa’s development, we should ask Nigerian government how much is earmarked to tackle myriad of problems associated with illiteracy, out-of-school children, maternal and child health, family planning, and nutrition problems.”

From 2015 to 2017, the health sector budget was N259bn, N250bn, and N304bn respectively. But, due to inflation, the figures: $1.4m, $1.3m, and $0.997m, mean that Nigeria spends less as the year goes back.” It is a mere 4.17 per cent of annual budget of N7.298tn.

In education, government allocates N398.01bn with Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) getting N92bn this year.

“These figures are grossly inadequate to eradicate this scourge killing our girls,” protested Dr. Adewusi with emphasis on ‘girls’.

He is a father to two adorable girls himself.