She was innocent, young, and still had her life ahead of her. We were all teenagers then but i was older. Aisha( not real name) was barely 13years old but she was married to the man next door, our neighbour. Alhaji Bako(not real name) was as old as my father if not older. There were nights when we heard wailings coming from his flat. I used to wonder then but soon i got to know that it was Aisha’s wailing that filled the dead air at night. She cried every time her husband, Alhaji Bako had sex with her. My family felt so sad for her but we couldn’t do anything to save her. We were sojourning in that part of our country which believed in child marriage. Though we are all Nigerians but we were in the minority in terms of tribes residing in that city. Many times when we went shopping at the market in company of my sisters and mum, it was not uncommon to get marriage proposals from men in the market. My mother would tell them that in our own culture/tribe girls don’t marry until they attain tertiary education. Most of the men would exclaim in disbelief. As far as they were concerned we would be too old to get a husband by the time we concluded our University education. My father also responded to marriage proposals by insisting that his girls must finish their tertiary education before thinking of marriage. He had dreams of his four girls becoming doctors, lawyers,accountants, etc.
I think my father found it most frustrating watching Aisha in her predicament with our neighbour. He couldn’t imagine any of his daughters being given out in marriage at such a tender age. So we watched on helplessly as she is forced to stay at home waiting for the return of her husband everyday while we went to school. Fate they say is something beyond human control. Life continued and we all minded our business until none of us even remember that Alhaji Bako was married to Aisha.
One Christmas period, as is our family practice to share food and drinks with our neighbour, i was asked to extend this love again to our neighbour Alhaji Bako. He opened his door and collected the food and drinks. At first i wondered why it wasn’t Aisha that came to the door as the dutiful wife but i couldn’t ask him. Alhaji thanked me and asked me to greet my parents. The next day while shutting our gate after my dad drove off in his car, Alhaji met me with a dish in his hands. He was about to return the dish which i had used the day before to give him food. I greeted him and extended my little hands to collect the dish and with a smile he handed over the dish in his large hands. Thanking i and my family, he suddenly asked if i had been the one that cooked the food. I told him that i had helped my mum made it. Alhaji, with a grin on his face said you must be a good cook. Instead of saying thank you i found myself asking about how his wife Aisha was doing. The grin left his face immediately and the words that flowed out of his mouth surprised me. “Aisha ran away”, he said. My young heart couldn’t feel sorry for him, so i just said, “oh”. Alhaji mistook it to mean that i was feeling sorry for him, so he tried to explain but his next words left me with anger. “Aisha was not a good cook”. Though young i wondered what he expected anyway. I mean how was a child expected to take up a role that my “adult mother”, sometimes find overwhelming? It just was sheer meanness to my young mind. This thought went through my mind as i stood looking into the eyes of Alhaji who was obviously expecting me to respond. I didn’t know what to say, so i just said my mum was waiting to send me on an errand and my small feet ran into the house.
This news about Aisha’s escape from the claws of her much older husband became the topic of discussion in our home that night. We were all delighted but a lot of questions remained unanswered. Had she gone back to her parents? Not likely…where did she go to? Is she safe wherever she was? According to a UNICEF report world wide 1 in 4 women were married before 18. Hence the large number of child marriage. This often results in early pregnancy which is why there is high rate of maternal mortality and Vesicovirginal Fistula(VVF) amongst such girls. Child marriage often compromises a girl’s development and advancement.
I am forced to think about what makes marrying a child appealing to men. A chat between two men i sat beside in a taxi in my University days comes to mind. One of them was getting married and the excitement filled their voices. It was a marriage with another child. One of them with a wide grin on his face said that he prefers marrying a young girl who would begin her menstruation after he had married her. I felt like giving him a slap across his face to wipe the silly grin. Why would a parent willingly send their precious underage jewel into what i feel is a lion’s den? It dawned on me that i and my sisters were few of the lucky girls who had people who protected us. My parents ensured that their dreams for their girls came to pass. We were given the chance to develop and advance in life. Today we are all married and didn’t have to wail like Aisha; we didn’t have to struggle with health problems and psychological trauma of marrying a man as old as our father. Today we are adults contributing meaningfully to our society and we are well equipped to take care of our parents in their old age.
Many countries were signatory to the International Child rights act law, how many are truly enforcing this law. In my own country Nigeria, some states are yet to pass the child rights into law and even in states where these rights are recognized, it is not enforced as it should. As we mark another day of the African child with the theme: Accelerating our collective effort to end child marriage in Africa the question is how serious are we? I believe ending child marriage starts with every parent. You can choose to go against culture and society to protect your girls like my father and mother did.
By Adebisi Adetunji