‘I didn’t love him’, ‘nobody wants to be pregnant away from home’… Boko Haram’s ex-wives recount ordeals

Very few girls have been able to continue their education following the Boko Haram crisis in the north-east, and many have taken to what seems to be the next available option – getting married.

Nigeria comes 16th in the number of teenage pregnancies, with about 111.89 births per 1000 women aged 15-19. It also has the highest maternal mortality rate in Africa.

Stories of the young mothers were captured by Dolce Pedroso, a consultant sociologist who is providing Medicaid and counseling to young girls in six states in Northern Nigeria under a United Kingdom-sponsored charity programme called ‘Maternal Newborn and Child Health (MNCH2)’.

While the programme addresses long-term issues in the health system, it has introduced community interventions such as ‘safe spaces’ (SSI) for women and girls and outreaches to provide antenatal care, family planning and immunisation services.

The report, titled “How to be a girl after Boko Haram”, chronicles the challenges of young girls between 15 and early 20s, who became mothers after their hopes for good education were dashed by the Boko Haram crises.

Narrating the story of one of the girls, Pedroso wrote: “I was divorced at 12,” Afra tells me, making a face when she talks about the man she had been forced to marry a few months earlier. “I didn’t love him.”

As is customary in the Hausa culture when a woman wants a divorce, her family paid the dowry – some 20,000 naira (£40) – back to the husband. Next time Afra was allowed to pick her fiancé. A year later she married a 35-year-old butcher.

“She was out of town with her husband when they heard the news about Boko Haram rampaging in the village. They ran away to Kano and didn’t return until a year later.”

Of another teenage mother, Pedroso wrote: “Halimat lived with her father in Hadejia, near the basin of the Chad Lake, an area that has been severely affected by reduced rain fall of recent years.

“When her father passed away, Halimat moved to Katarko. Her extended family started making marriage arrangements. Halimat ran away from home and stayed with her uncle, in whom she found an ally, until she was promised not be forced to marry.

“Like Afra, a year later she married a man she was in love with. “The other one, I didn’t love. But I loved Mohammed. He’s a teacher.”

The teacher would encourage his young bride to get an education, but Halimat – who had never been to school – thought that at 14 she was too old to start studying. Soon she was pregnant with her daughter.

When Boko Haram came, holding her toddler, she and her husband ran three kilometres into the night. Her neighbours got killed.

Hauwa18, was born in Maidiguri, the capital of Borno State. She was four when the family of twelve moved to Dikumari. They had struggled to pay rent. Her father knew people in the village, and there were no restrictions as to where to build a house. He died when Hauwa was six. Her mother moved to Damaturu, where Hauwa started attending Islamic School, until her mother remarried and they moved back,” Pedroso wrote of yet another teenage mother.

Hauwa was very close to her older sister. When her sister moved out to get married, Hauwa even left home to live with her and her brother-in-law. She loved them both, so it came as a huge shock to her when one day he left the family to join Boko Haram. When he got killed in an explosion, Boko Haram came for her sister.

The Nigerian Army has been operating rescue missions and Hauwa’s sister was one of the lucky ones. But when she came back she acted withdrawn. The two sisters no longer had long talks like they used to. Hauwa was let down for the second time, when her sister voluntarily returned for a life with the militants.

“The family no longer let themselves worry for their lost daughter. They just gave up on her. But the little sister is still praying that she would come back. “Although, I will never trust her again for what she did.”

She doubts the community will be as forgiving.

Hauwa had no other option but to get married. She had only finished primary school. Now she learns about food groups and how to take care of a baby at the Safe Space intervention.

“I would choose school over marriage. What I’d really like is to be a barrister,” she says.

She pauses to attach her baby back to her breast. Her husband is supportive, but not a rich man. “I want the truth and I want to fight corruption.”

Pedroso reports that contrary to the intention of the Boko Haram terrorists – to eliminate western education from Northern Nigeria – many young girls are willing to return to school, and has expressed willingness to allow their children get proper education.

Rebecca, a 20-year-old who is pregnant with her first child, says she would like to become a health worker in the future.

“I want to help my community,” she says. Fortunately, her husband supports the idea, but there is no money.

Rebecca believes what the community needs is a 24-hour health service and a hospital. She also wants to see schools, water and food and jobs.

Binta Adamu is a Community Health Extension Worker (CHEW)

Binta Adamu, who has worked as a Community Health Extension Worker (CHEW), attending to pregnant girls and women, said there are positive changes though it has been slow.

Adamu said the people only started returning to their communities last year.

“There were no schools left. Many girls had spent over six months with Boko Haram and were sometimes rejected by their husbands when they came back,” she said.

But she also observed a resilient spirit growing in the community. “Before the norm was to marry the girls before they turned 14. Now I’m starting to see more and more delaying until they are 17 or 18,” she said.



    Binta says that many were introduced to family planning in the IDP camps. “No one wants to be pregnant away from home, especially in conditions like those on the camps,” she said.

    There is no counselling, so it is left to health workers like Binta, to tell people that “the past is past, now you have to focus on the future.”

    “I am one of the internally displaced people,” she explains. “I’ve seen with my own eyes what has happened. I lost my house and everything I owned, but I didn’t lose my children.”

    Others were not as lucky. When she hears about girls and boys taken from their homes, she cries with the parents. “It will not happen again,” she tells them again and again.

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