Today, Wasila Tasi’u has her day in court, though she may struggle to see over the witness box. Aged just 14, Tasi’u is accused of lacing food prepared for a celebration two weeks after her wedding with rat poison, killing her 35-year-old husband, Umar Sani, and three others.
The prosecution is seeking the death penalty if she is convicted at Gezawa High Court in northern Nigeria. Four Nigerian men were hanged in 2013 - the first known executions in the country since 2006. 1,233 Nigerians are currently under a death sentence, according to The Death Penalty Worldwide.
Hussaina Ibrahim, a senior lawyer at the Kano branch of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) who representing Tasi’u says the teenager has “no business” being on trial.
“We are against the trial. The whole process violates her fundamental rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says she should be in education. She should be in school,” she says.
With no school in the village of Unguwar Yansoro, where she was born and raised, her parents argue they had little option but to marry her off as soon as possible. Zubeida Nagee, a women’s rights activist in Kano, told the Associated Press in October that Tasi’u had been forced into the marriage and had been the victim of systematic abuse.
On the night of her wedding, Ibrahim says Tasi’u told her she was taken at night to Sani’s house, where he proceeded to tie her to his bed and rape her. She was not freed until the following morning.
According to the charity Girls Not Brides, 39% of Nigerian girls are married before they turn 18. The organisation estimates that Nigeria has the third highest number of child brides in the world, with incidents particularly high in the Muslim majority north of the country.
Ibrahim has filed an action against the Nigerian government over the absence of education facilities in Tasi’u’s area. She argues that this state of affairs makes children vulnerable to falling into forced marriages.
As the only woman with a private legal practice in her state, and the first female to go to school in her area, Ibrahim knows all about the transformative capacity education can have on a girl’s life. She handles around 20 cases involving forced marriage each year, with the rest of her work dealing with everything from domestic abuse to child labour.
Threats and intimidation are a regular occurrence, either from angry defendants, or sympathisers with the notorious terror group, Boko Haram. She was recently attacked in the street, with thieves making off with her car and work bag.
“The way they were abusing me, I thought they were not usual criminals,” she recalls. “But you know these are the kind of things we have to go through.”
Ibrahim first met Tasi’u after hearing about her case in local media. She had already confessed to the crime and been interrogated by police.
“She was crying. So I just sat down with her and explained she should take it easy,” she remembers. “Then I took my daughter with me to see her, and they became friends.”
In recent weeks, despite Ibrahim’s best effort to hide the gravity of the situation from her, Tasi’u has become aware of the predicament she is in. She knows she could be sentenced to death, as difficult as that is for any child to comprehend. Despite urging from the judge, she was mute during her initial trial in October.
“She is an ordinary child, like my own daughter. I’m just looking at her as an ordinary child. She has the potential to become something, if she had an education. She is intelligent, you can tell from the way she answers questions,” says Ibrahim.
“She is scared now. Not as jovial as she was. She looks down. I’ve told her parents that they have to come more regularly. She needs her mother.”
Each day the teenager sees young offenders who are accused of minor offences come and go from her institution. She regularly asks Ibrahim when she will be able to go home.
The death sentence has been handed out in similar cases. Last year, Maimuna Abdulmumini, a teenager who was accused at the age of 13 of killing her adult husband by setting him alight as he slept saw her death sentence quashed in a regional court. Though even after a six-year legal battle, Abdulmumini still faces an uncertain future.
Ibrahim has no doubt that with young girls desperate for a route out of forced marriages, there are hundreds of similar cases to Tasi’u’s in Nigeria today which are receiving no attention.
Applications to have the case heard in a juvenile court have so far fallen on deaf ears. In September last year, Nigerian senators failed to strike down a constitutional provision which meant that child brides could be considered adults in criminal trials.
Veronica Yates, director of Child Rights International Network, an organisation monitoring child marriage across the world said:
“The forced marriage of girls - and to a lesser extent boys - all too often by the very people who are supposed to protect them is not only unacceptable in international law, it is an affront to humanity.”