Nigerian Child Marriage

By MSN Kenya Associated Press
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Nigerian Child Marriage

We take a look at the practice of female children being married off in Nigeria and look towards a future when this practice will no longer be common. See gallery

Last month, many Nigerians were up in arms over the issue of child marriage. This furore arose over a vote by the senate not to overrule a law which many have links to the practice of men taking child brides. The decision not to overturn the law came after a pitched battle in the senate, and in civil society. We take a look at the practice of female children being married off in Nigeria and look towards a future when this practice will no longer be common. According to some reports as many as 40% of Nigerian brides are under the age of 18 when they marry.

Associated Press
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The Senator and the vote

In June this year, Nigeria looked at Section 29 of the constitution (written in 1999) where it states that a Nigerian of full age (18 or above) may renounce his or her citizenship. A subsection of that law adds that women can be deemed of full age when they get married - this wording has been identified as a loophole used by those who wish to continue the practice of taking child brides. One of the biggest proponents of the law, Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima (pictured), representing Zamfara West in northern Nigeria, was a vocal lobbyist during the debate. Yerima is understandably in favour of the culture of marrying young girls, having himself taken a 13-year-old bride when he was aged 49. He claims that changing the section of the constitution in question would be an affront to Islamic culture. An amendment to the subsection was initially passed with a two-thirds majority before Yerima took to the senate floor, and proclaimed the move was anti-islamic. The decision was reversed as a result. According to Premium Times, "Senate President, David Mark, has accused a senator, Ahmed Yerima, who is at the centre of the child marriage controversy, of blackmailing the Senate to reverse its initial move to delete a section of the constitution that appears to support child marriage."

Associated Press
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Those In Favour

Child marriage is most prevalent in the predominantly Islamic Northwest region, with UNFPA stating that in this area "48 percent of girls were married by age 15, and 78 percent were married by age 18." One Nigerian proponent of child marriage, Muslim Rights Concern NGO director Ishaq Akintola states that Muslim law does not specify a minimum age for marriage. The senate needed 73 votes to outlaw the clause, but with 35 senators voting in favour, only managed 65. The Daily Post published a list of the senators who voted in favour here.

Among those who voted in favour was Senator Abubakar Bagudu, who said the vote was not in favour of child marriage, but in support of the citizenship clause. However, comments he made to the media indicate that he was not against the issue of child marriage, with the Vanguard reporting that he said, "In many places around the world, marriage below the age of 18 years for girls is allowed by parental consent”. He insisted that the “Holy Bible, the Koran, the Torah etc, all view full age for women from the age of puberty.”

Associated Press
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The Case Against

The outcry against the incidents in the senate - and against child marriage in Nigeria as a whole - was loud and vehement. Civil society, politicians and ordinary citizens were vocal in their disgust over what transpired. Many news sources reported on the #ChildNotBride hashtag that trended on Twitter, as well as the Nollywood stars (including Omotola Jalade Ekeinde and Stella Damasus) who spoke out against the law. Several opinionistas took to their newspaper columns to critique the state of affairs. Much of the ire mentioned paedophilia in relation to child marriage. However, beyond the emotional reactions, there are health and socio-political problems at play when it comes to child marriage. The majority of critics cite the connection between child marriage and Vesico-Vagina Fistulas. Many reports state that the stigmatised and painful disease is prevalent in areas where child marriage is the norm and cited that some 12 000 cases are reported each year. A large body of health statistics have also been compiled showing the medical risks of young motherhood and the danger to their infants. Another important criticism is that child brides are more likely to drop out of school, increasing the gap between males and females in terms of education, in a country where a lack of education is already a major concern.

The feelings of many critics were summed up by Nollywood actor, Nonso Diobi, who according to stated, “If she can’t vote, then she can’t marry. A female child should be taken to the classroom, not the labour room.”

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Looking to the Future

Internationally, child marriage remains a huge problem, with the Girls Not Brides NGO partnership claiming that as many as 14 million girls under the age of 18 are married annually. While the senate vote which was passed was not directly related to child marriage, it certainly got Nigeria talking about it. In accordance with the Child Rights Act of 2003, child marriage is already illegal in Nigeria; however more states need to adopt this act in order to enforce these laws. States need to pass this act into Law in the House of Assembly in each state. According to Taiwo Akinlami writing for Punch; Enugu, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Kebbi, Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Adamawa, Bauchi, Katsina, and Zamfara have not yet passed this act into law. This is the fix that critics of child marriage should be pushing: if the Act is adopted in all 36 states, adults who marry minors will face prosecution, possible jail time and large fines.