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Nigeria girl among thousands of divorced children

Saturday - 6/28/2014, 9:38pm  ET

In this Sunday, June 1, 2014 photo, Maimuna Abdullahi sits outside her school in Kaduna, Nigeria. Maimuna wore the scars of an abused woman anywhere: A swollen face, a starved body, and, barely a year after her wedding, a divorce. But for Maimuna, it all happened by the time she was 13. Maimuna is one of thousands of divorced girls in Nigeria who were married as children and then got thrown out by their husbands or simply fled. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

MICHELLE FAUL
Associated Press

KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) -- 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 her husband had dislocated her jaw. Her back and arms bristled with 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, a frown crinkling her brow 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."

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Nigeria, a young country of about 170 million, has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. The law of the land states that the age of consent, and thus of marriage, is 18. However, the custom of child marriage is still ingrained enough that even a middle-aged federal senator has married five child brides and divorced at least one.

Across the country, one in five girls are 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 shariah or Islamic law, that number goes up to one in two.

This is also where Boko Haram is trying to impose its extreme version of Islam, changing the face of the region and especially of its girls. Children as young as five now hide their heads and shoulders in hijabs, a rare sight just a few years ago. Some girls become wives as early as 9.

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 as scrawny as he is. 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 in a reasoning tone. "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."

Her life is hard, she says, but her marriage good. 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.

The tradition of child marriage is rooted partly in poverty. This is an area where most people do not have running water, electricity or indoor toilets, where children get only three or four years of schooling. A marriageable daughter can bring in a bride price and mean one less mouth to feed.

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