NGO Advocates Abolition of Child Marriage in Nigeria

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Maryam Ibrahim

By Francis Sardauna in Katsina

A non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Katsina State, Save the Children International (SCI), has advocated the abolition of child marriage and other impediments bedevilling married and unmarried adolescents in the state.

Consequently, SCI wants the state governments to criminalise marriage before the age of 18.

The organisation, which is currently working in Katsina, Gombe and Zamfara States, believes that one of the remedies to end child marriage is to increase the enrollment of girls for primary education, ensure retention and their transition to secondary school.

In Katsina, the non-profit organisation is working in Rimi and Sandamu Local Government Areas with an average of 11 wards each, targeting no fewer than 33,000 married and unmarried adolescent boys and girls to address gender inequalities and improve their sexual and reproductive health services.

The organisation, through its project, REACH – Reaching and Empowering Adolescents to make informed Choices for their Health and Better Life for Girls, has impacted positively on the lives of young girls and boys in the state by empowering and educating them on their civic rights.

In an interview with some ‘teen’ wives during THISDAY’s visit to Fago village in the council area, 16-year-old Maryam Ibrahim said: “Had it been I had a choice, they should have given me a chance to graduate from at least a primary school but since this was what the parents wanted, I had no other choice.”

Maryam, who hails from Yakawada village in Sandamu council, first got married to Malam Ayuba in the same village and has a daughter with him but spent only one year and seven months after the matrimonial vows.

In Nigeria, there is a Child Rights Act (CRA) of 2003, which is a domestication of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Act pegs the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18. But the legislation, which was created at the federal level, would only be effective if it is passed by the state Houses of Assembly.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), only 24 out of the 36 states in Nigeria have passed the CRA. The legislation is yet to be passed even in Maryam’s home state, Katsina. This, according to human activists is giving birth to raising cases of child or early marriage in the state.

However, due to what Maryam described as domestic violence and other difficulties she went through while staying with Malam Ayuba, she decided to run to her parents at Yakawada and the husband (Ayuba) later divorced her.

Maryam, who is six months pregnant with her new husband, Malam Ibrahim, in Fago said: “I had no interest in getting married again since Malam Ayuba divorced me, but my parents insisted I should marry instead of staying at home. That is why I married Malam Ibrahim and we are living happily.”

Asked if she supports child marriage, Maryam said: “Child marriage is not good as it imposes more danger on us ranging from birth complications, diseases and other physical challenges. Government and relevant agencies should criminalize child marriage.”

Another 14-year-old teen wife, Fatima Isiya, who seems to be the boldest of them, said immediately after she obtained her first school leaving certificate, she got married to Malam Isiya.

According to Fatima, “As at that time, I was just doing my own things. Marriage was not on my mind until when God wished it was time. We got married two years ago; my parents didn’t forced me to marry him; I love him naturally.”

She, however, admonished parents to encourage their children, particularly the girl child to go to school instead of child marriage, saying: “But if a girl is misbehaving at home, it is better for her to marry to avoid unwanted pregnancy.”

Meanwhile, Ramatu Salisu, another 16-year-old girl in Katsina, said she has defied her parents’ expectations by refusing to get married and ran to live in the city with her uncle.

Ramatu, who is currently a JSS 2 student in Government Day Secondary School, Kofar-Yandaka, added that: “My father wanted me to get married when I was 14, but my mother said no, because she was in support of my decision to further my education.

“I was being forced into an arranged marriage, that was why I ran away. I had never seen him (the proposed husband) before and I don’t love him. A date was set and a day before the wedding, I ran away but luckily for me, my uncle got admission for me.

“My classmate do laugh at me because I am the eldest person in the class. They do tell me that I should go and marry. They gossip and sometimes I do cry. But the moment I remember the advantage of my studies, I stop crying.”

When contacted, an Islamic cleric in the state, Mallam Shua’ibu Awwal, said the Qur’an specified that girls can marry once they reach maturity, as according to him, a girl of 10 years can marry if she is sound and physically strong.

“According to Islam, a girl’s readiness for marriage cannot be determined by her age. A girl of 10 years; if she is sound, she is physically okay; she can go in, because in Islam there is no barrier to marriage,” he explained.

But a human rights lawyer with the state Ministry of Justice, who pleaded anonymity, said: “Most of these child marriages are purely as a result of poverty, it has nothing to do with Islam. This poverty drives most parents to marry off their daughters at childhood age.”

He explained that economically disadvantaged parents in the state have been accepting what he termed as unusual dowries “just to send their young girls out of their homes to people who can’t even take good care of them”.

On what could be the way forward, the source said: “State government and the state legislators should ensure speedy passage of the Child Rights Act. They should not change the name to Child Protection to address the alarming rate of child marriage in the state.”

“Save the Children in Katsina State has contributed significantly in alleviating our plight through empowerment and educational programmes. It is through this organisation (SCI) that I am able to know my rights as a young mother,” said one of the teen wives, Naja’atu Ibrahim.

She affirmed that through the organisation she was able to identify some root causes of gender inequalities and negative social norms in her community, which she said were the reasons behind child marriage in most villages.