On 1 January 2018, suspected semi-nomadic herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group invaded several villages in Benue state, in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, and killed more than 100 villagers. Subsequently, more attacks followed and the death toll rose at an alarming rate. After the attacks, about 300 000 persons were displaced, according to data from the state’s relief agency.

Conflict between the armed herdsmen and poor villagers over grazing routes in Nigeria has been going on for some years now, often resulting in the deaths of villagers. Conflict experts say that the death toll from these conflicts is higher than that of any other conflict in the country. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group said that herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria has claimed more people than the Boko Haram insurgency currently raging in north-east Nigeria.

“At least 1 500 people have been killed in clashes between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers in central states since September last year. More than 1 300 Nigerians died from the farmer-herder conflict between January and June this year, while the death toll from Boko Haram’s rebellion was about 250,” the group said.

Islamist separatist group Boko Haram

In the midst of all these, teenage girls displaced by the conflict and settling in IDP camps have been at the receiving end of even more hardship. Many of them are being married off to men old enough to be their father because of the ever increasing poverty in the camps.

Child brides at risk of disease

At an IDP camp in Agan, Mercy Toso, 11, was married off to a man of about 40 years of age. Her mother, Ayiga, told This is Africa that she married Mercy off because they did not have money for food, clean water and sleeping materials.

Ayiga lost her husband when the herdsmen attacked their village, leaving them with no one to provide for the family.

“My husband was at the farm when they came and attacked him,” she said. “She is the third in my family and I don’t have anyone to provide for us since his death but her husband is taking care of us now,” Ayiga said, referring to Mercy’s husband.

Mercy’s fate is by no means unusual. Many young girls in the camps have been married off by their families because they could not provide food, clean water and other needs.

“In early May, we went to the camp and discovered that there was a lot of child marriage and trafficking going on in the camps,” said Helen Teghtegh, the director of Community Link Human Empowerment Initiative, an NGO working in some of the IDP camps to provide relief materials for the displaced persons. “We were able to interact with women, especially those who have four, five or six children to fend for. One of the key things we did as a coalition was to carry out a needs assessment. We do these periodically to establish the key needs of the IDPs and to mobilise in that area,” she said.

Read: Diversion of funds and relief materials for IDPs fuels humanitarian crisis in Nigeria

“These women felt that the only way out of their poverty was to give out their female children aged between 10 and 13 for marriage while some of the younger boys in the camp marry the girls,” she told This is Africa.

Aside from facing emotional and psychological trauma from these early marriages to older men, the girls might also face the risk of contracting deadly diseases like HIV and Aids.

“Now that these girls are given out for marriage, with unprotected sex going on, they are at risk of HIV. Directly or indirectly, this will affect everybody,” Teghtegh said.

No schools in the camps

According to officials, and following a survey done in June 2108, more than 300 000 people have been displaced across 22 IDP camps in the state. Children of school-going age make up a large part of this population.

More than 300 000 people have been displaced across 22 IDP camps in the state. Children of school-going age make up a large part of this population.

Since the recent conflicts started over seven months ago, the children stopped going to school because they were forced to leave their villages for the resettlement camps. Their existing schools and classrooms have been converted into camps and spaces for the displaced persons who use it as temporary shelter.

Child marriages remain a problem in across Africa. Photo: Jessica Lea/Flickr

In the IDP camps, the children have not had any form of learning or skills training. No makeshift classrooms have been constructed to serve as a temporary place of learning for them.

Experts believe this might have a negative impact on their intellectual development and have advised authorities to take action so that the children can go back to school.

“The lack of teaching will affect them and their ability to acquire cognitive skills in an environment that has already been in conflict and bloodshed,” said John Terver, an early childhood development expert. “The government needs to take urgent steps to get these children back in school.”

Teghtegh said that although the government has been responding to the humanitarian crisis in the camps by providing relief support for the displaced people, the efforts have not been enough to address the issue of education and development.

“The state government said they were doing their best and, obviously, responding to the needs of more than 300 000 people has not been easy. But their best has not been good enough. If you go to the camps now, the biggest need is for food, but they need education too. They need to go back to their classrooms to learn,” she said. 

Thanks to international donors like UNICEF, Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, some form of counselling and educational relief is coming to the camps. In some places, makeshift schools are being constructed to accommodate the children who have been displaced from their schools. Hopefully, more such efforts will be made so that teenage girls like Mercy have more options than being given out in marriage to older men.