Thousands of children divorced in Nigeria in battle over whether girls should study or marry

                                1In 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)

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KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — By the time she ran away, Maimuna bore the scars of a short but brutal marriage.

Her face swelled so much from her husband’s beating that doctors feared he had dislocated her jaw. Her back and arms bristled with angry welts where her father had whipped 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 federal senator has married five child brides, including a 13-year-old Egyptian when he was 49, 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 poor Muslim north, where most people eke out a living from the soil, that number goes up to one in two. Child marriage here is often considered acceptable under shariah or Islamic law.

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. A few girls eye potential customers from the shade of a mango tree.

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. Many sit on the floor, because there’s not much furniture beyond two benches. 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. He has fathered eight children, one of whom died in childbirth.

“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.

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