We will break these chains forever

JFON Michigan helps a mother fight to free her daughter from child marriage 

The man who had bought her was a man of great importance, her father told her. A leader in the Ogboni secret fraternity of Nigeria, he would do a lot to help her family.  It was a good match for his daughter. Why wasn’t she happy about it?  

Chichima was nine years old.  Her soon-to-be husband was nearly 60.

Let her stay in school a bit longer,” her mother pleaded. Lebechi had tried begging before, when her daughter had been forced to submit to the traditional female genital mutilation (FGM) that made her “marriageable” to Ogboni men.  

Lebechi had failed then, and she failed again. She was powerless; less than nothing. And so was Chichima.

The old man died several years later. As was Ogboni custom, Chichima was then offered to his eldest son. He decided to take his father’s widow into his house.

Chichima rebelled. She was now 14 years old, but had already lost twin babies. She did not want to be married again. And she knew that the son was even worse than the father.

With her mother’s help, she tried to run away. Each time she was brought back, and each time her father grew more enraged.

“You go back and stay with your husband,” he told her. “Try this again, and I will send you back in a coffin.”

Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa: a massive 23 million girls and women were married as children.
Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa: a massive 23 million girls and women were married as children. Photo: Marc Ellison, Al Jazeera

Chichima was now the property of her former stepson. For months, her new husband kept her chained to the bottom of a toilet so she couldn’t run away. He kept her there until she became pregnant.

Chichima stopped running then. She gave birth to a boy, and, a few years later, a girl. But she never gave up on the dream of freedom. Instead, she expanded that dream to include Mobo and Aretta.     

“In the beginning, I couldn’t escape because of my children,” Chichima told her attorney, Migladys Bermudez of  JFON Michigan. “But in the end, I had to escape for my children. “


She would have to leave them behind, but she promised herself it would be a temporary separation. Mobo was safe in boarding school. Her daughter Aretta, so quick and clever, was still only an unimportant female.  Chichima’s husband would certainly allow his mother-in-law, now widowed, to take her off his hands. 

Lebechi was very worried. “There is no place safe for you in this country,” she told her daughter.  “You need to go far away. As far away as possible.”

So Chichima went to Thailand, on the other side of the world.  She found work. She tried to apply for asylum or some sort of legal status, but every attempt was denied.  

While in Thailand, Chichima fell in love for the first time in her life. His name was Joseph; he was also a Nigerian and also fleeing Ogboni persecution. He was the opposite of her husband in every way. They had a son together and named him Samuel.

But there were still her older children, and her heart ached from their absence in her life. Chichima, in spite of her mother’s warnings, returned to Nigeria several times to see them. She was putting her life in grave danger; if she had been caught by her husband, or any of the Ogboni, they would have killed her.  And she knew no one would have been able to stop them.


Lebechi was sitting in her parlor one evening when she heard the men arrive. They didn’t even attempt to be stealthy; they slammed the car doors, stomped up the driveway and knocked sharply on her door.

“Aretta,” she called to her granddaughter, striving to keep her voice calm. “Go upstairs to the hiding place. And do not come out, no matter what. Do you hear me? No matter what.”

Lebechi hadn’t been expecting them so soon. It would be another day at least before Chichima would arrive. How long could she delay the men from their evil purpose? How would she stop them from taking Aretta?

Almost a quarter of Nigerian women have undergone female genital mutilation, which can cause excessive bleeding, health problem, fertility problems, and even death. FGM was officially banned in Nigeria in 2015, although, sadly, the practice still persists. Photo: GirlTalkHQ
Almost a quarter of Nigerian women have undergone female genital mutilation, which can cause excessive bleeding, health problem, fertility problems, and even death. FGM was officially banned in Nigeria in 2015, although, sadly, the practice still persists. Photo: GirlTalkHQ

Chichima, meanwhile, was still in Thailand, frantically throwing clothes into suitcases, as Joseph tried to soothe a fractious Samuel in his arms. He looked at Chichima’s distraught face with worry.  She’d been like this since her mother’s call the day before.   

Aretta’s father had sold her to a policeman. They were planning to have the cutting ceremony within days and then the marriage to follow. 

“I didn’t think he would do it,” Chichima kept repeating. “Not so soon.”

Like her mother had been, Aretta was only nine years old.


Chichima, Joseph and Samuel were en route to Nigeria when she got the call from her daughter. There had been a lot of shouting, Aretta told her, but, as she’d promised her grandmother, she hadn’t moved from her hiding space. And the bad men had left when she had called the police.

They found her grandmother’s twisted body at the bottom of the stairs.  The policemen said she must have died from the fall. 


“Chichima’s asylum hearing took two full days,” recalls Migladys Bermudez, Chichima’s attorney, from her offices in Detroit. “We had to halt the proceedings several times, because she couldn’t stop sobbing during her testimony. Describing her mother’s death was one of those times.”

Chichima had arrived home in time to bury her mother. But her sacrifice gave Chichima the courage to finally file for a legal divorce in Nigeria.

“You are my property!” shouted her ex-husband in the courtroom, using his fists to beat her in full view of everyone present. A police report was filed, but her ex-husband spent only a few hours in jail. The judge who granted Chichima’s divorce, meanwhile, was later fired.

Girls who marry between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women in their early 20s. Photo: Daily Post Nigeria

“You cannot overstate the control the Ogboni have over every aspect of Nigerian life,” explains Migladys. “Their power is everywhere.”

Chichima and her family fled to Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria. Hiding in a city of 21 million people shouldn’t be hard, they thought. They would be safe there.

But her ex-husband, along with several Ogboni, including the police officer who had purchased Aretta, found them. They held them at gunpoint, and then forced Joseph to watch while Chichima’s ex-husband raped her.

As a parting gift to the newly-married couple, he poured hot oil on Samuel’s face.

Samuel still has the scars, says Migladys, although he was very young, so he, thankfully, doesn’t really remember much about it. But Aretta and Mobo remember. They remember the screams, the terror, and the trip to the emergency room.

That was another time, says Migladys grimly, when Chichima had to stop testifying.   

“The year I worked on this case was extremely stressful,” Migladys recalls. “I would go home every day and think, “I have to do everything I can to win this case. Because I was 100 percent certain that Chichima would be killed if she were forced to return to Nigeria.”


When Chichima and her family arrived in the U.S. in July 2017 on temporary visas, the country was in the grip of anti-immigrant fervor.  They decided to try to go to Canada and claim asylum there. They were caught at the border and sent back to Detroit.

Migladys Bermudez, Chichima’s attorney from JFON Michigan.

“You have to make your asylum case wherever you land,” explains Migladys. “So for this family, it was the U.S. or back to Nigeria. And Chichima was willing to go anyplace on earth except Nigeria.”

Joseph was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detained. Chichima and the children, meanwhile, were living a peripatetic existence in a budget hotel and falling into despair.

It was left to young Aretta to make a fateful decision. “We need to go to church,” she announced suddenly. “God will give us the answer in church.”

Chichima looked at her daughter thoughtfully.  Aretta had always been wise beyond her years.

“Yes,” she agreed. “Let us go to church.”

Their first visit on that Sunday led them to a loving and supportive community and also their first benefactor…someone who knew a private immigration attorney. But this attorney’s work was limited to employment-based visas. She knew little about asylum law. So she went looking for an organization that would take Chichima’s case. She met reluctant refusal after refusal.   

“This was a defensive asylum case,” explains Migladys, “meaning we are defending a client against deportation. Defensive asylum cases are difficult and time-consuming. They also involve court representation, and many legal service providers just aren’t prepared to take that on.”

Luckily, it was exactly the kind of case JFON Michigan would, and could, take on.  With the help of the pastor from the family’s new church, they were able to obtain Joseph’s release from detention. And then Migladys got to work.


It should also be noted that the Nigerian Constitution does not establish a minimum age of marriage. The Child Rights Act, which was passed in 2003, sets the age of marriage at 18 years-old. However, only 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted this act.
 The Nigerian Child Rights Act, which was passed in 2003, sets the age of marriage at 18 years-old. However, only 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted this act. Photo: The Nigerian Reporter

Although the stakes were terrifyingly high, Migladys concedes, the case actually went very smoothly. There was so much evidence to support Chichima’s asylum claim: a survivor of FGM, child marriage, violence and persecution from a recognized and powerful cult, fighting to save her daughter from also becoming a victim.

It was, Migladys thought, a rock-solid case for asylum. Happily, the judge agreed.

“When I am feeling down,” says Migladys. “I just think about this win. I am going to be riding this high for a very long time. Even if it never happens again, we have changed the lives of generations to come.”

Generations of girls had been forced to marry as children and against their will. They had been forced to suffer the pain and long-term misery caused by FGM. They had not been allowed to study, to make their own future, to live their own lives as human beings fully equal to their brothers.  

This won’t happen to Aretta; nor to her daughters, or to her daughter’s daughters.

Lebechi died, and Chichima lived, to break those chains forever.




The family still lives in Detroit and still attends the church that originally brought them to Migladys and JFON Michigan.

Chichima, who never got to finish school, is working to improve her reading and writing skills. She has also established her own office and housecleaning business.

Joseph earned his AA degree in computer science and works in the IT industry.

Mobo graduated from high school and works in a restaurant owned by a fellow member of their church.

Samuel is happy and doing well in elementary school.

Aretta’s quick mind and love of learning—qualities her natural father never recognized—have made her a star student in her new country. She skipped two grades and is now, at 14 years of age, a high school junior.

“JFON saved my life,” says Chichima, and, this time, the tears in her eyes are happy ones. “Migladys saved all our lives.”

Please join us in wishing Chichima and her family a very happy Mother’s Day! 


For further reading: 

For more information on child marriage, please visit GirlsNotBrides.org

Abebi, a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) was a client of JFON North-Central Texas.  You can read about her heroic battle to save her three daughters HERE


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