Towards Ending Child Marriage

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Child marriage has remained one of the gnawing issues facing the girl-child in several parts of Nigeria. In this report, Ugo Aliogo and Azeezat Abdulkareem examine the effects of the practice and efforts to eradicate it

Child marriage is one of the fundamental issues facing the girl-child in the 21st Century in Nigeria and some parts of Africa. In some societies in Africa, child marriage has a culture standing. Advocates of the practice contend that the practice is built around strong cultural traditions which cannot be exterminated in lieu of western civilisation. In carrying out this practice, some critical facts are not put into proper perspective by the advocates, such as the physiological trauma and the inability of the victim to make her choices.

The crude nature of the practice ensures that it is continuously done without being reviewed by succeeding generations. The strong grip on this practice has made it seemingly difficult for stakeholders to clamp down on the practitioners. Also, the practice is not done in the open; rather it is done secretly among the families concerned.
Online statistics show that in Nigeria, 43 per cent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday, while17 per cent are married before they turn 15. The prevalence of child marriage differs widely from one region to another, with figures as high as 76 per cent in the North-west region and as low as 10 per cent in the South-east. While data shows a 9 per cent decline in the prevalence of child marriage since 2003, action is needed to prevent thousands of girls from being married in the coming years.

The report further espoused that poverty, poor educational attainment and strong social and religious traditions are drivers of child marriages in Nigeria. However, the report stated that education is a strong indicator if a girl would get married as a child. The report added that: “82 per cent of women with no education were married before 18, as opposed to 13 per cent of women who had at least finished secondary education. In northern Nigeria, parents have complained that the quality of education is so poor that schooling cannot be considered a viable alternative to marriage for their daughters.”

At the 23rd Teenage Festival of Life (TFL) organised by Action Health Incorporated (AHI), the issue was once again brought to the front burner of discourse, the focus was shifted time from creating awareness, to chart a road map to end the increasing prevalence of the practice. AHI which has been at the centre to stamp out this practice uses the TFL to provide a medium for young people to acquire knowledge and share their viewpoints on the years’ theme, ‘using the creative arts as a medium’.

To set the tone for the discourse was the Executive Director of AHI, Mrs. Adenike Essiet. In the last two decades, Essiet has devoted much of her time fighting for the right of the girl-child especially on issues of youth development and internship, sexuality education and counseling, clinical and referral services and other reproductive health programmes. Her commitment to this cause has been driven to the far ends of many slum communities in Lagos State. These efforts have not only recorded successes, but have transformed the lives of many young girls. Some of whom have began to chart a new pathway for their future.

She began her address on a note of caution to parents and intending brides. She hinged her views on the premise that girls are not only good in the kitchen who serve as housewives; but also belong to the society, therefore, there is a need for them to be equipped with education, information and vocational skills, “they need to live healthy and fulfilled lives.” She remarked that the staggering rate of child brides has alerted Action Health Incorporated to organise a day programme to create awareness on the issue of child marriage, its prevalence in Nigeria, impact and effects on the child bride, community and national development.

Essiet added: “These child brides are burdened with responsibilities as wives and mothers with little support, resources, or life experience to meet these challenges. Furthermore, girls’ rights; health and development are undermined by the impact of early marriage, including pregnancy and early child bearing which impacts on their mortality and morbidity. They are also outcomes of early termination of their schooling which limits human capital and their future productivity which of course affects the lives of their children and families.

“Child marriage violates a girl’s right to health, education and opportunities to fulfill her potential. It is also exposes girls to violence and traps her in the vicious cycle of poverty. The factors that drive the unfortunate phenomenon of child marriage in Nigeria are rooted in gender inequality, poverty, poor educational attainment and strong socio-cultural and religious traditions.

“To end child marriage in Nigeria, we need to understand the complex drivers of the practice and work across different sectors to empower girls, mobilise families and communities, provide services and implement laws and policies that will ensure improvements in services, changes in social norms and girls’ empowerment.”

Also speaking at the event, the Director Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Lagos State, Mrs. Alaba Fadairo, noted that the state government is also working effectively to stop child marriage, adding that two years ago, a girl was rescued by the Lagos State Task Force on the wedding morning. “The husband came all the way from Mali to take his bride in Badagry, luckily the girl had just finished her secondary school last year. Government has zero tolerance for early marriage of girls, the marriage will have influence on the girls emotionally, socially, physically and health wise,” she noted.

Medically, child brides are liable to have Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF). VVF is an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vagina’s vault which also have a profound effect on the patient emotional well-being. It is caused by childbirth, when a prolonged labour presses the unborn child tightly against the pelvis, cutting off blood flow to the Vesico Vagina Wall.

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 taken concrete steps to implement the minimum age of marriage.

As part of efforts to end the practice, the federal government recently announced plans to launch a campaign to end the practice and other related harmful traditional practices in the country.

The Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Senator Aisha Alhassan, said the move was borne out of the resolution by African leaders to end child marriage during the 25th African Union Ordinary Session of Heads of State in June 2015, adding that the leaders also resolved to take practical steps in addressing the issues of child marriage and other harmful traditional practices.

“One of first practical steps is a vigorous campaign to end child marriage was launched on November 29 at the Sheraton Hotel.

“Global communities and Nigeria in particular are increasingly recognising child marriage as a serious challenge, both as a violation of human rights and a hindrance to key developmental outcomes,’’ she said.
Alhassan said African countries that were faced with the challenges of child marriage robbed girls of their education, health and future, stating that according to UNICEF findings, 15 million children are married off every year globally with devastating consequences on their general wellbeing.

She added: “This is very disturbing as it is further revealed that 15 out of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world are in Africa. Fifteen African countries have so far launched the campaign to end child marriage. The countries are Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Niger, the Islamic Republic of Gambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Zambia, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Madagascar. A National Technical Working Group set up to end child marriage in the country was inaugurated on July 23, 2015 by the ministry.”

Alhassan urged the media, development partners and other stakeholders to redouble their efforts in ensuring girl’s rights to freedom from child marriage and other forms of violence against children, calling for a more proactive effort to end the practice.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) at a recent conference decried the high incidence of child and forced marriage in Nigeria, describing it as violence against women.
Speaking at the conference in Abuja, Entity’s Deputy Country Representative in Nigeria, Adjaratou Ndiaye, noted that gender-based violence has become a preoccupying human right violation, adding that recent studies have also shown the negative impact of the phenomenon on the economy of the country.

Ndiaye, who was represented by the UN Women Programme Manager, Desmond Osemhenjie, observed that victims of gender-based violence are unable to contribute to the growth of the economy due to the trauma they suffer. “There is also the cost of medical and psycho-social support for those who can access it, and may never fully recover.”

She added: “Reports from the National Demographic and Health Survey in Nigeria shows that 28 per cent of all women have experienced physical violence since age 15. The major challenge to efforts at preventing and ending violence against women and girls is the substantial funding shortfall,” even as she stressed “the need for sustainable financing to end gender-based violence and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, between government and states.”

In her remark, Human Rights Watch Senior Nigeria Researcher, Ms Mausi Segun, noted that with 630 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, Nigeria has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, adding that most of these deaths occur in northern Nigeria.