In parts of Nigeria, activists say it is increasingly common for girls to drop out of school to be married as young as 12 or 13 years old. At the same age, other girls hit the streets, hawking goods in the markets. In Abuja the girls say if they had the chance to go to school they could be doctors or lawyers, but more often they are barely able to survive.
Thirteen-year-old Yalwa is at home alone and noticeably pregnant. Her husband, in his 30s, is at work pushing goods from the market in a wheelbarrow.
Her ghetto home has no running water, sporadic electricity and no door to speak of. But that is not what Yalwa wants.
She says what she wants is to go to school. Before she was married she dreamed of being a doctor or a midwife. At her parents’ house, Yalwa and her siblings sometimes ate only once a day. She thought if she got married, her husband, with only one mouth to feed would help her go to school. But it did not turn out that way.
Activists say stories like Yalwa’s are increasingly common in Northern Nigeria, which is growing poorer among insecurity and natural disasters.
National Association of Nigerian Female Students President Saratu Musa Makawa says when little girls get married, it is not just educational prospects that they lose.
“Early marriage and there are a lot of complications that accompany that on to women. Apart for the psychological and sociological effect it also has a medical side effect on the lady,” Makawa stated.
Last week, the United Nations reported that between 2011 and 2020, more than 140-million girls around the world are expected to become child brides and are far more likely to die in childbirth or give birth to a stillborn baby than mothers over 18.
But in Nigeria, it is not just marriage that robs young girls of their education, childhood and health, says Makawa.
At the Kaduna Central Market in Northern Nigeria, men shout as they make deals and hawk their goods. Among the sellers are throngs of girls, peddling everything from vegetables to slippers, sometimes as young as six-years old.
Makawa says the girls are in constant danger of rape, sexual harassment or just harassment, increasing the rate of unwanted pregnancies, abortions and abandoned babies.
Like Yalwa, the girls, she says, just want to go to school.
“All this sexual abuse, harassment of women all starts from hawking on the streets," Makawa explained. "But if these girls would be taken to the four corners of the classroom they will come out and be something great.”
Makawa says for the girls in the market, the problem begins at home. “When you trace it back to the house you find out that the parents do that so as to earn a living for themselves,” she added.
Aisha Yusuf, of the aid organization Support Health and Education for Development, says education for girls is often not considered a priority because of the patriarchal nature of the local society, which prioritizes educating boys.
The result, she says, is bad for everyone.
“It negates our development and it also affects the child’s upbringing. I mean the female child will always grow up to lack self-esteem," said Yusuf. "To lack the ability to project the nascent or the latent talents that God has given her.”
She says the solution begins with convincing parents to pay more attention to their daughters’ educations. But activists say as long as most Nigerians live on less than $1 a day, many children’s dreams will be crushed one way or another.
Ibrahima Yakubu Contributed To This Report From Kaduna, Nigeria