In Nigeria, Many Girls Are Married And Divorced Before Adulthood

Nigeria's rate of child marriage is among the highest in the world. Michelle Faul of the Associated Press tells NPR's Don Gonyea that the rate of girls being divorced and abandoned is rising too.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Two months ago, Boko Haram militants kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. It is feared that some of the abducted girls have been sold into marriage. The event drew global attention, but what is less well known is that Nigeria has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world.

One in 5 girls there is married before the age of 15. Many flee their husbands or are thrown out before reaching adulthood, leaving them unable to support themselves. Michelle Faul is the bureau chief for the Associated Press in Nigeria and has written about the epidemic of divorced girls. She joins us from Lagos. Thanks for being with us, Michelle.

MICHELLE FAUL: Good day, Don.

GONYEA: The legal age of consent in Nigeria is 18. And yet, the United Nations says 1 in 5 girls are married while still children. How do we reconcile those things?

FAUL: Well, you have a huge clash in Nigeria between a Western-style constitution and certainly, in the north of the country, Sharia laws and then tradition and custom in the south. When you look at the north of the country - Muslims under Sharia law - it's more like 1 in 2 children that are married before they're 16 years old. And when I say children, I mean girls.

I spoke to a woman at a school who is helping a couple of dozen of child divorcees. And a short distance from the school, there was a truck driver stop. And there, you could see girls as young as 9 years old selling their bodies. And I am told that most of these are the fallout from child brides.

GONYEA: And if they're divorced at age 15 or 12 or whatever it is, how do the divorce laws actually work there?

FAUL: Well, in this case, a man waits three months to make sure that there is no child involved in the marriage. And then he declares, I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you. And he writes a note that says, I have divorced this woman to the parents. And there is a divorce.

GONYEA: And what are the consequences of getting a divorce for these girls?

FAUL: If you have children, your husband has the right to those. By paying a bride price, he owns your womb. So he can take your children away, throw you out on the street. Your family will disown you, and you have no means of support.

GONYEA: Is the government concerned about this? Is it doing anything to address it?

FAUL: I don't think the government is in any way concerned. But Nigeria has a huge problem. It has never dealt with the fact that having Sharia law in most of the northern states is totally at odds with its constitution and therefore, some would argue, illegal. But that is one of the realities of a country where you have a growing extremism - and I'm not just talking among Muslims - but a growing extremism among Christians and Muslims.

GONYEA: Michelle Faul is based in Lagos, Nigeria, for the Associated Press. Michelle, thanks for being with us.

FAUL: You're most welcome.

GONYEA: And you're listening to NPR News.

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