The scourge of early child marriage received official denunciation recently with the country’s ranking among the 11 nations with the worst cases globally. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), who expressed concern about this, charged relevant government agencies to ensure that this human rights abuse is reversed.
Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is a reality for both boys and girls; however, girls are disproportionately the most affected. Child marriage is a fundamental human rights violation and impacts all aspects of a girl’s life. Experts say these marriages deny a girl of her childhood, disrupts her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk of violence and abuse and jeopardises her health.
A policy plan of action in the “National Strategy to End Child Marriage 2016–2021” is the regime’s first salvo, which espouses an increase in access to quality all-round education. Other initiatives had preceded it in the form of legislation. The Universal Basic Education Act, which provides for compulsory and free education for every child, also makes it a punishable offence not to send a child to school. Under the law, every child is supposed to complete primary education and three years of junior secondary school.
It is really a global crisis. Reproductive Health, an online publication, says globally, nearly one in three girls are married before the age of 18 and one in seven is married before the age of 15. An estimated 10 million child marriages occur every year.
With the two levels of schooling in Nigeria, there is hardly any girl-child that would not reach 15 years before leaving school. A parent who violates this law as a second or third offender, on conviction, pays N2,000 or N5,000 respectively as fine. Another legal armour is the Child Rights Act. Its Section 21 prohibits child marriage: “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage and, accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect.”
Despite these legal constraints in Nigeria, records indicate that 17 per cent of girls are married off before their 15th birthday. According to UNICEF, 43 per cent of girls in the country got married before their 18th birthday in 2017. Regrettably, a mix of religion, retrogressive cultural practices and poverty has ensured that this abuse holds sway, as is irresponsible governance in many states. Comparatively, this abuse is dominant in the North. This is evident in the UNICEF account, which says the abuse is “as high as 76 per cent in the North-West and as low as 10 per cent in the South-East.”
The Buhari regime should go beyond rhetoric. Unleashing a stronger legal assault on the practice is imperative. The ambiguity in the 1999 Constitution, on the ripe age for marriage, is part of the problem. In Section 29 (4), it says: (a) “full age” means the age of 18 years and above; while in (b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” This vagueness is being religiously exploited to justify or perpetuate child marriage by the abusers. Therefore, it should be amended further for clarity. Government should embrace this challenge. Apart from UNICEF, other international bodies are as well worried about the condition of the girl-child in the country. One of them is Plan International, whose Country Director in Nigeria, Hussaini Abdu, says girls are already marginalised in Nigeria; and to forcibly give them away in marriage further silences their voices. This is absolutely true.
Nigeria is not the only country where religion is posing a serious hurdle. But many countries have initiated the process to protect the girl-child. In 2018, Florida has banned marriage for children under 17, after a campaign by a woman who was forced to marry her rapist when she was just 11-years-old. Politicians in Kentucky are stepping up their fight to end child marriage in the state after a planned vote on the matter was postponed because of opposition from a conservative group. Under the current law, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission. Any age under 16 can also get wed, as long as they are pregnant and marrying the father of their child.
According to PakistanToday, the country’s Senate in April 2019 passed a bill that fixed marriage age at 18 for girls. Sherry Rehman, a senator, had argued that since eligibility for voting and acquiring a national identity card was 18 years, it was illogical for the age for marriage to be anything less. “Muslim countries that have declared 18 years as the age of puberty include Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Oman, United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia,” reports the newspaper.
Governors, especially the Northern governors, who at various times have decried low school enrolment in their domains – worse still that of girls – should demonstrate seriousness and sincerity of purpose by ratifying the Child Rights Act. As of 2019, UNICEF said, 11 states out of 19 in the North had yet to domesticate the Act. The affected states are Bauchi, Yobe, Sokoto, Adamawa, Borno, Zamfara, Gombe, Katsina, Kebbi, Jigawa and Kano. The Federal Government should mount pressure on these states to join the train. An educated girl or mother is crucial in good parenting, observance of hygiene and health standards. These make for a healthy population, which invariably lead to a productive economy. Since poverty has been identified as one of the reasons parents force their girls into early marriage, government should take deliberate steps to stimulate economic inclusiveness with policies that foster rapid economic growth for the benefit of all.
Early child marriage is an evil with health hazards. A girl, whose reproductive organs have not fully developed stands the high risk of being exposed to prolonged labour, and maternal and child mortality. Such unlucky minors more often than not contract Vesico Vaginal Fistula disease. The United Nations Population Fund said in 2016 that Nigeria’s 800,000 recorded cases ranked the country as the number one offender in the world. Out of this figure, 680,000 cases came from North-West and North-East, where child-marriage is most common.
States have been urged to enact and strictly enforce laws to ensure that marriage is entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses and to enact and strictly enforce laws concerning the minimum legal age of consent and the minimum age for marriage, and to raise the minimum age for marriage, where necessary. For a national consciousness to be forged against this social ill, the National Orientation Agency should begin a public campaign on it. The message should spread to primary and secondary schools for the girl-child to be aware of her right so as to defend it when trampled upon. An ill-timed or forced marriage deserves the condemnation of all. There have been a few reported cases where some girls revolted against this primeval marital order by fleeing the homes of their purported husbands. This proves that, with sustained national public enlightenment, the habit could be exorcised from the society.