Disowned by her parents after running away from the 55-year-old man they forced her to marry in the northeast Nigerian city of Yola, 13-year-old Hadiza was left to fend for herself.
Distressed and confused, Hadiza roamed the streets until her older brother found her and took her to a shelter for vulnerable girls and young women – many of whom are victims of child labour, sexual violence, early marriage and teenage pregnancy.
“They took me in and provided for me – everything from food to shelter to clothing to education right up until university,” Hadiza, now 32 and a graduate in information technology, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her home in Yola.
Hadiza is one of thousands of girls and women who have received support from the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment (CWAE) that has come under attack repeatedly since it started in the late 1990s for going against Islamic values.
As well as helping the girls, the organisation supports their parents, giving them money so they can send their daughters to school rather than making them sell wares on the streets or marrying them off in the predominantly Muslim city.
Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, more than 10.5 million, and 60 percent of them are girls, according to the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF).
“Parents feel that the only way they can survive is to send their girls to roam around and carry things on their heads to sell,” said CWAE coordinator Turai Kadir.
“If we do not assist the parents, they cannot allow their girls to go to school.”
The centre is also caring for and providing education to girls and women uprooted by jihadist group Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency to establish an Islamic caliphate, which has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced 2.7 million.
Opposed and attacked
In cases when the CWAE cannot dissuade parents from giving their daughter away for marriage, they instead ask community leaders to intervene or approach the girl’s husband directly.
“We pay nannies to look after the girls’ children while they are in school,” said Kadir, adding that the group’s funding comes mostly from wealthy benefactors. “We also look for funds to build crèches in schools, and clinics for pregnant mothers.”
At least four in 10 girls in Nigeria are married before they turn 18, while almost a fifth are wed before 15, UNICEF data shows. Yet the prevalence of child marriage nationwide has fallen by nine percent since it was made illegal in 2003.
“Forced marriage has reduced drastically,” said Kadir, explaining how the centre helps current and former child brides to return to education or learn new vocational skills.
Yet the work carried out by the civil society group has been opposed by many people in Yola who believe promoting girls’ and women’s rights goes against the values and teachings of Islam.
Rates of child marriage and literacy among girls are far worse in the mainly Muslim northeast, where there is a deep-rooted patriarchy, than in the rest of Nigeria, activists say.
“Our office has been attacked a number of times,” said Kadir. “People have broken in and carted off equipment, there were times when people threw stones at our building, and some Alsatians we bought to guard the office were killed.”
Kadir and her team, however, are undeterred in their work.
“Every family needs to understand that their child has a right to go to school,” she said. “Because she is your child does not mean you have the right to put her in a cage.”