Violence in any school hampers the participation of the girl-child in education and other development programmes. Sexual violence in places considered ‘safe’ for children, such as Islamiyya schools, have a lasting physical and mental challenge on survivors. Daily Trust on Sunday looks at how the culture of silence, stigma and shame are creating an enabling environment for paedophiles lurking around northern Nigeria’s Islamiyya schools.
At 12, Halima (real name withheld) is eight months pregnant. She used to hawk chin-chin, a popular Nigerian snack around her village of Unguwan Fantaro in Kachia Local Government Area of Kaduna State. Sometime in June 2021, Halima, who lived with her widowed mother, was lured by a respectable allo teacher (an elementary Islamic teacher) called Salihu on the guise of buying chin-chin worth N200. Inside his room, adjacent a tsangaya school (traditional Qur’anic school) where he tutors young boys to memorise the Qur’an, Salihu covered Halima’s mouth and forced himself on her. Almost three months later, a neighbour suspected that Halima was pregnant and collected her urine sample for test. It returned positive and Halima was forced to speak.
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“He threatened to kill me if I told anyone,” she told Daily Trust eight months later in Kaduna metropolis where she is awaiting a caesarean section to deliver the baby.
“He raped me multiple times and I didn’t know I was pregnant until the test result came back and my mother’s sister demanded I tell her the truth,” Halima whispered in Hausa language.
After Salihu was accosted, he initially denied the crime until the police arrested him and charged him to court.
Six months apart and about 130 kilometers away from Unguwan Fantoro, a six-year-old returned home from her Islamic school, bleeding from her private part.
Aisha (real name withheld), a student of Madrasatul Ulumul Deeniya wa Tahfizul Qur’an, lives with her mother and grandmother in Rigasa, a densely populated Muslim community in Igabi Local Government Area of Kaduna State.
Her grandmother, Hajiya Batul Gambo, struggled through emotions as she narrated how her granddaughter bled profusely after she was raped in an Islamic school. When she demanded justice, Hajiya Batul said the school teachers had assaulted her.
“The police didn’t help me either. Initially, they directed us to a hospital, and when I noticed they were not being sincere, I sought help from a Foundation, which immediately took my granddaughter to a government-owned hospital for examination,” she said.
At the Yusuf Dantsoho Memorial Hospital, which houses one of the Kaduna State’s Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC), it was confirmed that Aisha had been raped and a medical report stated that on examination, there was “bleeding of the vagina, bruising of the labia minora, bilaterally periurethral bruising, haematoma of the clitoris and laceration of the hymen.”
In Nigeria, six out of every 10 children have suffered one or more forms of physical, sexual or emotional violence before they reached 18 years. According to a 2014 survey by the National Population Commission (NPF), with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United States (US) Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four girls experience sexual violence, and one in six girls experience emotional violence. The report revealed that most of the perpetrators are known to the child and the violence often takes place where the child should ordinarily be safe.
Safe spaces for children, such as Islamiyya schools, conventional schools, places of worship and even homes no longer appear safe as both Halima and Aisha were either assaulted within the school environment or by a ‘revered’ member of the community.
Kaduna State, where the two incidents occurred, has four sexual assault referral centres established at the Yusuf Dantshoho Memorial Hospital, Tudun wada; Gwamna Awan Hospital, Nasarawa; Gambo Sawaba Hospital, Zaria and Sir Patrick Yakowa Memorial Hospital, Kafanchan. The centres, in 2021, recorded 1,668 cases of sexual violence, although in Nigeria, true figures of sexual violence remain elusive due to the tendency by most families not to report abuses, and instead, cover them up. The state’s Commissioner for Human Services and Social Development, Hajiya Hafsat Baba, whose ministry oversees the centres, said out of the 1,668 cases reported in 2021, records show that 1,325 were female victims while the remaining 343 were males.
Growing cases of sexual abuse by ‘Islamic teachers’
The Kaduna State Government, in December 2021, shutdown Madrasatul Ulumul Deeniya wa Tahfizul Qur’an, the school where a six-year-old Aisha was raped. It also shut down another Islamic school in Kachia Local Government Area, where Malam Salihu, the alleged rapist of the 12-year-old Halima used to tutor.
The overseer of the Kaduna State School’s Quality Assurance Authority, Idris Aliyu, told Daily Trust on Sunday that the two schools were not registered with the state government. He said all the schools that claim to run a combination of Islamic and conventional education must register with the School’s Quality Assurance Authority, while those that offer Islamic education exclusively are expected to register with the state’s Bureau of Interfaith. He, however, said that in the case of the two schools, available records showed they were not registered.
“And if they are not registered, they are not even eligible to run the place as a school,” he said.
Northern Nigeria is home to thousands of non-state schools, mostly neighbourhood Islamic schools that comprise of makarantar allo, tsangaya and Islamiyya, many of which are privately owned, largely unregistered and unregulated.
Available data on the number of these Islamic schools is almost no-existent, but a 2018 study on non-state schools in Kaduna State prepared for USAID, showed that due to a lack of robust data, government officials estimate an additional 2,000 unregistered non-state schools deeply rooted in local communities of Kaduna that operate in isolation of government. Due of the density of population and high levels of poverty, most law income households prefer to send their children to such schools, where majority have no formal system of fee payment.
It was in such Islamiyya that in 2020, Hassan Bilyaminu and Abdullahi Bilyaminu, two Islamic teachers, defiled four under-aged girls and were later sentenced by a Minna Chief Magistrate’s Court II in Niger State to a combined 22 years imprisonment. The convicts, who pleaded guilty, were convicted on two-count charges which bothered on the act of gross indecency and sexual abuse.
In 2019, a High Court sitting in Maiduguri sentenced a 19-year-old Islamic teacher, Sulaiman Abubakar of Ngomari Costine area of Maiduguri to 10 years imprisonment for defiling a six-year-old. The convict, a teacher in the school, was said to have lured the victim to a staff room after school hours and raped her. Prior to that, the police in Gombe State had in 2018 arrested a 26-year-old Quranic teacher, Bilyaminu Halilu, for allegedly raping his five-year-old student, while in the same year, the Kano State police command arrested a 41-year-old Islamic teacher, Alhaji Aminu Musa, for allegedly raping an eight-year-old female student.
Sexual assault on minors is not limited to Islamic schools alone, as according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the prevalence of sexual abuse on young girls, and in some cases boys, in and around settings intended as a place of safety and learning for children, can act as a deterrent for parents to send girls to school. This is particularly worrisome in Nigeria where over 10.5 million children are out of school; the highest rate in the world with over 69 per cent of the figure from northern Nigeria. Of these children, four in five are said to receive some kind of Islamic religious education.
The national president of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN), Prof Ibrahim Abdulkadir, explained that accusations of sexual abuse in Islamiyya schools had existed for years but rarely reported.
“In those days, people didn’t ask questions about what happened in those schools, although from time in memorial you always find that in most cases, male children live with the Malams while the female go and come back to the school.
“We cannot deny that even before now, such accusations existed, but in most cases, they were not reported, and when a child reported, they would just withdraw her from the school and that ended it,” he said.
Abdulkadir said that because Islamic schools sustained the knowledge of religion and translation of its teachings to the current generation, all efforts must be put in place to stop such acts by those who intend to “abuse the sacredness of the institution.” He said unless actions were taken, such assaults could stop young girls from seeking Islamic knowledge, and stressed the need for the girl-child to be as knowledgeable in religion as her male counterpart.
Silenced by fear, stigma, shame
There are shocking revelations of physical and sexual abuse that goes unnoticed in northern Nigeria’s largely unregulated traditional Islamic schools, although emphasis had in the past centred around physical abuse on male children, popularly referred to as almajirai, who attend Qur’anic schools outside their communities.
The culture of silence, stigma and shame, is however, creating an enabling environment for paedophiles to molest female minors and get away with it.
The Kaduna State police command confirmed that a lot of cases of sexual abuse against girls emanated from densely populated communities, where abusers are often revered.
“Silenced by fear, shame and stigma, young girls and their families are forced to settle sexual assaults at the family or community levels instead of reporting the matter to the police and pursuing justice in court,” the police public relations officer, Kaduna command, ASP Mohammed Jalige said.
“Because of tradition and culture, people don’t tend to talk, no matter how painful. They truly don’t go further to seek justices,” said Hajiya Hafsat Baba, the Kaduna State Commissioner for Human Services and Social Development.
Hajiya Hafsat, who has a background in the civil society before her appointment as commissioner to oversee Kaduna’s human services and social development said, “Sometimes the parents don’t support you if you want to get justice for the child. Some of the parents are part of those who will come to beg you and tell you that they have forgiven.
“We also have issues where people complain about the slow process of justice, so you find out that people just give up. But we encourage them never to give up because at the end of the day justice will be served.
“Sometimes you have a family setting where a woman doesn’t have a voice. A woman may want to get justice for her child but the husband is saying no, he has already forgiven. That is a serious challenge to her and to us because she cannot speak out, no matter how you try to sensitise her.
“Then you also have a situation where people would want to settle at home instead of accessing justice.”
For community organisations helping to address issues of sexual violation at the local level, it is frustrating to watch sexual predators walk free because of the culture of silence.
Speaking on the development, Hajiya Maryam Yahaya Sani, the director of Ummulkhairi Foundation and Khalifa Mahmud Community Development Initiative, a local initiative aiding to address human right violations among the downtrodden, said that most times, families only speak out when the victim becomes pregnant. And even then, she said the matter was settled if the perpetrator agreed to marry the victim.
“Time and time again, we see these young girls, some have delivered babies, some are pregnant and some raped and emotionally bruised. Most times, they are under 15 years, and in some cases, the perpetrators agree to marry them, and that settles the matter,” she told our correspondent.
Hajiya Maryam, who is now fostering the 12-year-old Halima until her caesarean section, narrated how an HIV positive rapist defiled a 10-year-old girl some 15 years ago but the parents settled the matter at the family level.
“It was 15 years later when the victim was about to get married that it was discovered that she had contracted HIV from the rape,” she said.
Facing community backlash
Feeling perplexed, Hajiya Batul Gambo, whose granddaughter, Aisha, was raped, said she didn’t understand why her neighbours and the rest of the neighbourhood in Rigasa, Kaduna’s Igabi Local Government Area now appear hostile towards her. The 70-year-old said that instead of support, she is often met with glares and sometimes condemnation from a highly conservative community that blames her for the shutdown of an Islamic school.
“Someone even approached me and said there was no justification for closing down a school because of what happened to an individual. Some see me as fighting Islam,” she said.
It is a similar backlash for Hajiya Maryam Yahaya Sani, whose foundation rushed Aisha to the hospital. She said she had been nick-named Ummulsharri (woman of ill-will). “People think because such a thing happened in an Islamic school, I, being a Muslim, shouldn’t be seen in the forefront of exposing it. They now accuse us of cooking up the story of rape to smear the Islamiyya school,” she told Daily Trust on Sunday.
According to the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), the security agency investigating the rape case in Kaduna, it has been unable to carry out identification parade on suspects because the school has been shutdown. The Gender Desk Officer of the NSCDC in Kaduna, ASC Shehu Maiyaki, however, said statements had been obtained from the school, teachers and nannies, with investigations ongoing.
Shortly after the incident, the school had gone on holidays, and the state government shut it down.
“The victim said she could identify the culprit although she doesn’t know him by name. So we plan to do an identification parade as soon as the school opens and take it up from there,” Maiyaki said.
But as investigations continue to drag, Hafsat Baba said some members of the community had made efforts to reach out to her ministry to let the matter rest.
“I don’t even understand it,” she said, sounding confused. “They are supposed to frown at it, what does the Qur’an say about people who violate others? There is punishment for that, so why are people even coming to beg?”
She said backlashes in form of insults and even threats were expected and even normal, but emphasised that the right thing must be done to ensure justice.
“The backlash has strengthened me because it is a religious school. There is no justification for a child to be molested. We need answers; and it doesn’t matter whether it is a school that offers western education, Christian, Islamic or Hindu, there is absolutely no religion that will tolerate a child being molested in school, including as Islamiyya,” she said.
Laws that protect children
In Nigeria, violence against children often goes unpunished, although the federal government has enacted the Child Rights Act (2003), a law yet to be domesticated by at least nine states, all in the northern part of the country. Many states in the country’s densely populated northern region where numerous Islamiyya schools are springing up are faced with poverty, population explosion and a high number of street children, making it an easy target for paedophiles and other sexual predators.
Kaduna State, in North-West Nigeria, where Halima and Aisha were raped, has signed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Law 2018 and the Child’s Welfare and Protection Law 2018. The state government, in 2020 also signed the amended penal code law, which amended section 258 number 5 of 2017 and provides for stiff penalties for rape of a child, which includes death, surgical castration for male convicts and bilateral salpingectomy for female rapists. The state is yet to test this law.
However, Section 32(1) of the Child’s Welfare and Protection Law 2018 states that a person who sexually abuses a child in any manner commits an offence, while subsection (2) of the law further states that a person who commits an offence under subsection (1) of this section is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of 14 years.
These laws, however, have not protected children as sexual violence still occurs in settings assumed to be ‘safe’ for children, including schools and faith-based organisations where perpetrators are sometimes teachers or peers.
The Kaduna State police command’s spokesman, ASP Mohammed Jalige, described lack of cooperation from victim’s parents, tampering with evidence and late report of sexual assaults as the major setback in effective prosecution perpetrators.
The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) said it had continued to follow cases of abuse of girls, and is equally worried about the slow pace of justice, which sometimes leads to loss of interests by victims and their families.
“If we can have special courts to try these cases we will be happy. These are criminal cases, and we don’t know whether the judges will want to have special courts for criminal cases. But if we can have special courts to fast track these crimes, it will be fine,” said Kaduna State FIDA chairperson, Hajiya Aisha Abdu.
Giving voice, shelter to survivors
Local foundations are networking to not only give victims a voice but ensure that information travels fast and victims of sexual violence are given immediate medical and psychological attention. It was through this system that Hajiya Batul Gambo said her granddaughter was able to get medical attention and a government action led to the closure of the school where her daughter was raped.
Working with civil society organisations and committees, such as the Child Protection, Gender Violence Response Team, technical working groups, trained security agents, as well as religious and traditional leaders, Hajiya Hafsat said information was provided to government agencies to quickly take action and provide support for victims.
A UNICEF (2020) action to end child sexual abuse and exploitation provides three effective responses through implementation and enforcement of laws and policies, regulating demand and prevention, as well as creating safe environments and institutions for victims.
“Those who abuse young girls, whether Islamic teachers or not, should be jailed,” Hajiya Maryam Sani Yahaya said, adding that Nigeria has the laws and policies but enforcement remains a challenge.
“All Islamiyya schools should be registered, monitored and regulated by government,” she said.
Safe houses not only provide a lifeline for women and girls but succour and counselling for victims of abuse in communities, according to the Kaduna State Commissioner for Human Services and Social Development, who commissioned the women’s transit shelter to ensure that victims have a safe shelter to stay.
Hajiya Hafsat said the shelter, with a team of health experts, provided care, psychosocial support and counselling to enable survivors get out of their trauma.
To check acts of sexual assaults in Islamiyya schools, MULAN president, Prof Abdulkadir, calls for more Islamic-oriented non-governmental organisations in the North, adding that secular non-governmental organisations may have limitations.
“If secular non-governmental organisations try to speak about these issues in Islamic schools, some people may think they are meddling as it is not within their religious purview,” he said, calling on governments in northern Nigeria to promote religious-oriented organisations to increase sensitisation on sex education and human rights, which he said were rarely discussed in the conservative northern region.
This article was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP), in partnership with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and through the support of the Ford Foundation.
By Lami Sadiq