KADUNA, NIGERIA —
In a village in northern Nigeria, teen wives gather on mats spread out in the dirt just outside the chief imam’s home. They talk about their initial reactions to getting married.
“I had no interest in it at the time. I was just doing my own thing. Marriage was not on my mind until when God wished it was time,” says 16-year-old Fadilah Bello. She’s the boldest of them, talking freely and coaxing on the others.
“Well, of course you would be nervous or scared. You cry on your way to your new home because you are leaving your parents and you don’t know where you will be taken to,” said Sahura Misbahu. She got married three years ago. She thinks she’s 15; she doesn’t know her husband’s age.
“Had it been I had a choice, they should have given me a year to graduate from school but since this was what the parents wanted, I had no other choice,” says the 15-year-old chief imam’s daughter, Aisha Ahmed.
Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund. The practice is most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim north where conservative Islamic groups staunchly resist efforts to criminalize child marriage. Most girls accept whether they want to or not, but times are changing.
“We are seeing more and more girls running away from child marriages,” says Hajia Rabi Salisu, the founder of Arrida Relief Foundation and owner of a children’s home in Kaduna.
She and other activists want states in the north to criminalize marriage before the age of 18. A prominent activist, Salisu says her advocacy has put her at loggerheads with Muslim groups and she regularly receives death threats.
“I sleep in a different home almost every night because my life is at stake simply for trying to protect the lives of children,”