By Emma Batha
CASABLANCA, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Boko Haram crisis in northern Nigeria could fuel child marriage as parents pull their daughters out of school following mass abductions by the militants, campaigners warned on Wednesday.
They said parents who had once seen boarding schools as a safe place for their daughters were now fearful of sending them away. Many local schools have also closed down because of the insurgency by the Islamist militants.
"We have communities where girls have not been to school for a year. We have parents withdrawing their girls from school. They do not see education as a safe alternative to marriage, which they did before," said Umma Iliyasu-Mohammed of Nigerian organisation Girl Child Concerns.
"Unfortunately when families pull their girls out of school they take them back home, and when girls are at home the next thing will be marriage," she added.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful", kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok village a year ago causing international outrage.
Amnesty International says the militants, who want to carve out a caliphate in West Africa, have abducted around 2,000 women and children since early 2014, using many of them as sex slaves or human shields.
Aid agency ActionAid said it was working with the state education ministries and security agencies to keep girls in class by introducing community policing around schools.
Child marriage is often cited as a cause for girls quitting school, but Iliyasu-Mohammed said the situation in northern Nigeria was sometimes the other way round.
"Sometimes child marriage is a consequence, not a cause, of school drop out," she told an international conference on child marriage in Casablanca.
"Education is the best way you can keep a girl from getting married," she added.
Regional activists said there was no hard evidence but it was possible the Boko Haram incursion would increase child marriage rates.
They added that girls displaced by the conflict were particularly vulnerable.
Some 43 percent of girls in Nigeria are married by the age of 18, but the rates are far higher in parts of the north where 60 percent of people live below the poverty line.
ActionAid's deputy country director, Ifeoma Charles-Monwuba, said scores of schools had closed in the region affected by the insurgency.
She said child marriage was a cultural practice in Nigeria so it was vital to get traditional and religious leaders on board.
ActionAid is also working with mothers to help them find work so they can pay for their daughters' education if the father objects.
"At a certain point some fathers will refuse to pay for their daughters' education and would rather marry them off, but if the mother has the economic means she can keep her daughter in school for a little longer," Charles-Monwuba said.
Nearly 300 delegates representing 61 countries are attending the three-day conference on child marriage which affects an estimated 15 million girls every year. (Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Alex Whiting)