Child brides with pregnancy disability in Northern Nigeria are suffering from social isolation as their husbands abandon them because of costly healthcare - leaving them to try integrate back into the ‘difficult society,’ alone.
At the age of 15, Laraba, from Zaria, Nigeria was married off to a man twice her age, and had her first pregnancy a year later but during this period not once was she taken for antenatal care.
She says when she was united with her husband she was ‘very okay with it’ because child marriage is the norm in her village she added saying, ‘My marriage was just like the regular marriage in my village.’ But motherhood was short-lived for the young bride as her child died immediately after the prolonged home birth, which consisted of no proper medical assistance.
The now 17 year-old realised something was wrong when she found herself ‘urinating with no control’ after the birth, and soon told a Doctor what she had observed. He revealed to her she was suffering from Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF), a pregnancy related disability.
VVF is as a hole that develops between the vagina and the bladder, resulting in uncontrollable leaking of urine. The most common cause of this is obstructed and prolonged labour, poverty, and women's limited control over the use of family resources.
Laraba has been waiting over a year for treatment and says what pains her the most is her doctor said she could have been saved from VVF if she had gone for hospital care during labour.
‘I used to share this belief that as women we don’t need to go for maternal care because in our community all the women gave birth without medical help but now I don’t share that believe.
‘I wouldn’t have gone through what I am going through if I had care but now it is too late - I am broken and shattered because I cannot stay in the midst of people for long, I feel worthless,’ she said.
In a vast majority of communities within northern Nigeria, there’s a social norm that a woman cannot attend places without her husband's permission. In most cases, women who may want to get medical care are prohibited if the husband has not consented.
It is estimated 2 million young women live with untreated VVF in Asia and sub- Saharan Africa and, in almost all cases of obstructed labour, the baby does not survive.
When Laraba lost her baby she said that’s when her views began to change: ‘I am now against child marriage seeing what it has done to me, especially after my husband abandoned me two weeks after he discovered that I had VVF. He left saying the cost of treatment can get him another wife.’
Child marriage is most common in North West and North East of Nigeria, where 68% and 57% of women aged 20-49 were married before their 18th birthday, and is particularly common among Nigeria’s poorest, rural households and the Hausa ethnic group.
Gloria Ameh who spoke briefly on her case said she lived a life of ‘isolation’ before her surgery ‘to avoid embarrassment’, since she was urinating constantly, and smelling of urine.
‘If I am sitting down in the midst of people for a while - when i am getting up you’ll see all the urine and that’s a big shame to me.
‘So when people were around I would just show up for a while and then leave as soon as possible.’
Similar to Laraba, Gloria’s baby died after labour.
After years of isolation, Gloria’s surgery was completed earlier this month with the help of contributors across Nigeria who donated towards her treatment through a tweet made by Zainab Al-Amin , a human and women rights activist.
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
Zainab Al-Amin, 33, from Kaduna, a well-known speaker and activist, who works closely with child brides and VVF sufferers, tol me that she meets and finds most victims of VVF in Kaduna, Zaria, Kano and Abuja.
In Kaduna State, some VVF victims have urged the state government to scale up intervention, access to treatment and psycho-social support, and also urged the government to come up with ways to help them ease back into society.
‘I work with a gender based NGO as a result I have gone to about four hospitals and visited VVF patients but I couldn't do much due to lack of funding, it's in light of that that I decided to crowd fund to pay for women like Gloria.’
Al-Amin believes in order for the issue of VVF to be reduced people closest to victims should ‘help stop child marriage and encourage the men to have their pregnant wives go to health centres instead of keeping mute.’ She also added that husbands need to be responsible for their wives when they do have VVF.
Through Al-Amin’s work using her IFVAPAW organisation, which focuses on the voices and protection of African women, she has managed to connect with the men in these regions in the hope of being able to educate them on why maternal care is needed.
In the meetings she often asks the men: ‘how would you feel if it were your daughter going through this?’
She says although some men in the different regions she’s visited are resistant, a lot of change has been made and more are willing to let their daughters marry at a time when they’re more ‘mature and ready.’
According to a UNICEF report published in 2017, Nigeria had the third highest absolute number of child brides in the world, 3,538,000, and the 11th highest prevalence rate of child marriage globally.
But the country has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030, in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Al-Amin believes ‘Any girl who is married off earlier than that (18) should be taken by the government, the father and spouse should be arrested for child abuse.’
A Backbench report by Abbianca Makoni