It is time to address the menace of early marriages in the society

The recent disclosure by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that Nigeria has the second highest number of child-brides in the world should worry critical stakeholders. It is shameful that no fewer than 23 million girls and women, according to UNICEF, are married out as children in the country. We cannot be tired of drumming the point that too many children and young people are being left behind, especially when it comes to education. This is a menace that will boil over except there is a proactive action by those in authority to redress it.

It is noteworthy that just last year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reported that 30 per cent of Nigerian girls aged between 15 and 19, who should still be in school, were already married. UNESCO added that only 14 per cent of girls from low-class families in the country complete primary school. Many of these girls given out in early marriage are of poor background where the parents struggle to provide the basic needs of the family. Among other factors responsible for child marriage are ancient cultural traditions, religious and social pressures and illiteracy.

Child marriage is a manifestation of gender inequality, reflecting social norms that perpetuate discrimination. In most instances, girls forced into early marriages do not know and may have never met their groom. The act is a violation of human rights and young girls who marry as children are more likely to drop out of school and have limited independence. Sadly, in Nigeria, more than half of the underage children have husbands who are sometimes older than their fathers.

The implication of a child engaging in early marriage is that she is conferred with responsibilities of an adult for which she is not prepared. Besides, a bride child may experience complications from pregnancy and child birth, attributed as the major causes of death among adolescent girls below the age of 19 in Nigeria. Bride children are also susceptible to HIV infections, cervical cancer and obstetric fistulas while their offspring are at increased risk for premature birth and death as neonates, infants, or children. They are also prone to domestic violence, sexual and physical abuse and are at risk of death due to early childbirth.

This arbitrary practice is the cause in elevated cases of brides, who resort to killing their supposed husbands mainly by poisoning as the marriage is not consensual and contractual as demanded by law. Though there is a public outcry against under-age marriage and attempt to prohibit it by amending section 29, sub section 4 of the constitution, the practice, however, continues with all the risks it poses. Some states and influential political figures have doggedly opposed the attempt by insisting on the status quo on the pretext of religion.

We call on government to address this menace in view of its consequences on women and the social economic development of the country. A bride child is denied her right to education, thus restricting both her development and contribution to the society. It also places restriction on her labour market participation and compounds global efforts to eliminate poverty. Beyond all these, we are particularly concerned that early betrothal places child brides at risk of widowhood at early age as they are significantly younger than their husbands. That risk subjugates them to economic and social challenges for a greater portion of their lives, compared to women who get married as adults. That is aside other negative consequences.

We call for more concerted efforts in dealing with the menace of child bride that has become for Nigeria another emblem of shame.