Image Source: Daily Mail
For thousands of years, millions of Nigerian girls have been told they belong to the kitchen and ‘the other room.’ Girls as young as 9 years have been pulled out of school, and introduced to men – often double their age, as their husband. Obviously, the aftermath is disastrous. In addition, Nigeria is predominantly a patriarchal society, making it extremely difficult for girls to acquire secondary or tertiary education, or aspire for high positions in government or the corporate sector.
The Oxford dictionary describes a child as ‘a young human being below the age of puberty or below the legal age of majority’[i]. In addition, Section 23 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says “a person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage. If such a marriage does take place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect.” Contradictorily, Section 29(4b) of the same constitution technically approves child marriage[ii].
It says: “This is by its provision that any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”
In the words of the United Nations Children’s Fund, “marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Child marriage decreases a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation. It interrupts her education, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement, placing her at increased risk of domestic violence, and exposing her to life threatening illnesses[iii].” Some of the key ailments child brides are exposed to include Vesico-vaginal Fistula (VVF), Anaemia, High Blood Pressure (HBP), Premature Birth, Malnutrition, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Postpartum depression (PPD), and even suicide[iv].
Fistula is reportedly one of the worst epidemics predominantly caused by child marriages. According to the international fistula foundation, an obstetric fistula is a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder that is caused by prolonged obstructed labour, leaving a woman incontinent of urine or faeces or both. Over time, it leads to chronic medical problems like frequent infections, kidney disease and infertility[v]. Medically, when an under-aged girl has sex, gets pregnant and goes through childbirth, because her body is not developed enough for child bearing, she is highly exposed to a fistula.
In a press release issued by international female rights advocacy platform, Girls not Brides, it was revealed that 65% of all cases of obstetric fistula occur in girls under the age of 18. The same report also revealed that ‘girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s’’[vi].
Out of the top 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage across the globe, 17 are African countries, and Nigeria ranks at number 11. In neighbouring West African country, Niger, 76% of girls are married before the age of 18, while in Central African Republic the figure stands at 68%[vii]. In Nigeria, child marriage has ancient cultural, religious and economic ties. It is believed that girls who marry after the age of 18 can become promiscuous, while other families give out their daughters to ‘escape poverty’[viii].
According to a 2017 report by UNICEF, 43% of Nigerian girls are married off before their 18th birthday, while 17% are married before they turn 15[ix]. The prevalence of child marriage in Nigeria varies from region to region, with figures as high as 76% in the North Western region and as low as 10% in the South Eastern region[x].
Image source: Africa is a country
In 2014, fourteen year old Wasila Umaru made headlines across the world after poisoning her 35 year old husband and his three friends to death. Her husband, Umaru, died the same day along with his friends, Nasiru Mohammed, and Alhassan Alhassan. A female victim, Indo Ibrahim, died in hospital while receiving treatment. When confronted by the local police, she confessed to committing the crime because ‘she was forced to marry a man she did not love[xi]. Wasila was arrested and imprisoned, but her lawyers swung into action. Calls from national and international women’s groups highlighted that she was tried in an adult rather than a juvenile court. Her lawyer Hussaina Aliyu, persisted that her case be treated differently:
“All we are saying is do justice to her. Treat the case as it is. Treat her as a child.” She told reporters.
In 2015, Wasila’s case was dropped by the Kano State Government, and she was released from prison with the help of high profile lawyers from the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA)[xii]. There are thousands of cases of child marriages, but not too many girls as brave as Wasila.
In April 2014, Islamist militant group – Boko Haram, kidnapped 276 girls from Government Secondary School, in Chibok LGA Borno State, Nigeria[xiii]. The majority of the girls were under the age of 18.They were raped, abused, or married off to members of the deadly Boko Haram Sect[xiv]. Various reports state that 57 girls escaped by ‘jumping off the truck’ during the night of the abduction[xv].
In May 2017, after three years of abduction, torture, ill-treatment, and forced marriage, 82 Chibok Girls regained their freedom after aggressive negotiations with the deadly Boko Haram sect. Currently, a total of 106 girls have regained their freedom, while 13 reportedly died. Some are still undergoing psycho-social rehabilitation and reintegration into society, while some were enrolled at the American University of Yola, Adamawa State[xvi].
On the 19th of February 2018, Boko Haram struck again. This time, in Yobe State, kidnapping a total of 110 girls from the Government Girls Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State. Again, the majority of the girls are believed to be under the age of 18, and at risk of sexual abuse and torture by members of the dreaded sect.[xvii] A few girls who managed to escape vowed not to return to school.
Several media houses, political analysts and international criminal case experts raised alarm at the similarity of the pattern of kidnapping. Some stated that the kidnappings appear to be politically motivated, while others attribute it purely to the Boko Haram sect. The underlying fact remains that child marriage must be completely abolished in Nigeria, it is one of the greatest social injustices of our time. Child marriage is child abuse as it has severe and negative psycho-social effects on their victims. Sexual acts on children can cause both physical and mental trauma which leaves indelible scars, that take years, and sometimes decades to eliminate.
It is highly imperative that the Nigerian Government takes immediate action to provide adequate security to all Government schools, particularly where the lives of children are involved. The lives of young children, particularly young girls must not be used as pawns for political discourse, conflict entrepreneurship, or gambling.
The Association for Reproductive and Family Health hereby calls on the Federal Government of Nigeria to amend the National Constitution to criminalize child marriage and child abuse holistically. In addition, we plea with the government to implement policies for free health care and free education for girls in particular in rural and poor communities.
“No child or indeed any other Nigerian should be put through the brutality of abduction, violence, or forced marriage. Every girl has a right to education and choice of life.”
President Muhamadu Buhari, 2016.
Composed by Chiaka Orjiako for the Association for Reproductive and Family Health
[i] Oxford Dictionary: “Child”- retrieved, 01/03/2018.
[ii] Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999), retrieved: 01/03/2018. Source: World Intellectual Property- Laws
[iii] UNICEF Data: Monitoring the Situation of Children and Women. Retrieved: 01/03/2018. Source:Child-Protection-marriage
[iv] Health Risksd of teenage Pregnancies, Retrieved 07.03.2018. Source: Mom Junction
[v] Fistula Foundation: “What is fistula”. Retrieved, 01/03/2018. Source: What is fistula?
[vi] Girls not Brides, Press Release: Reducing Child Marriage Will Accelerate Efforts to Improve Maternal Health. Retrieved: 01/03/2018. Source: Reducing Child Marriage- Press Release
[vii] UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017, – 20 Countries With The Highest Rates Of Child Marriage. Retrieved: 07.03.2018. Source: Girls not Brides
[viii] My Role in ending Child Marriage in Africa, by Taiwo Modupeoluwa. Published 05.12.2017. Retrieved: 07.03.2018. Source: My role in ending child marriage
[ix] Ending Child Marriage, Progress and Prospects (2017), United Nations Child Education Fund. Retrieved: Child Marriage Report
[x] Child Marriage in Nigeria: Girls not Brides. Retrieved 01/03/2018. Source: Girls Not Brides – Country profile-Nigeria
[xi] Child bride forced into marriage makes poisoned meal which kills groom and three of his friends in Nigeria, Daily Mail, United Kingdom Newspaper. Published 17:47 GMT, 10 April 2014. Source: Child bride poisons and kills husband and three friends
[xii] Wasila Tasi’u is fifteen years old and out of prison, by Dan Moshenberg. Published, 23.06.2015: Africa is a Country. Wasila Tasi’u is fifteen years old and out of prison
[xiii] The fate of the Chibok girls. By Alisair Leithead and Stephany Hegarty. Published 19.05.2017. Retrieved: 01.03.2018. Source: The Fate of the Chibok School Girls
[xiv] Escapee Chibok Girl Narrates Her Shocking Ordeal In The Terrorist’s Den. Oladimeji Thompson, Omoluabi Network. Source: Naij.com – Escapee Chibok Girl narrates shocking ordeal
[xv] Girls Who Escaped Boko Haram Tell of Horrors in Captivity. Charlotte Alter, October 27th 2014. Time Magazine. Source: Girls who Escaped Boko Haram
[xvi] Buhari renews committment to bring back Chibok Girls. Premium Times Newspaper, 26.11.2017. Retrieved: . Buhari renews committment to bring back Chibok Girls.
[xvii] Boko Haram Strikes Again, Punch Newspaper. Published: 19.02.2018. Retrieved: Boko Haram Strikes Again