The cost of marrying off young girls is high on the nation

The prevalence of maternal mortality and morbidity, child mortality and malnutrition, all of which have grave impacts on our human capital development, also have a strong interconnection with the incidence of child marriage. That explains why the recent disclosure by the United Nations Women Africa that Nigeria has the highest child brides in the world with 23 million girls married off in childhood, is disturbing. Critical stakeholders must come together in a bid to addressing some of the practices that inhibit the progress of our girls and women, including child marriage.

According to available reports, some 45 per cent of Nigerian girls are married—usually against their will—from age 13 to 18 in some parts of the country. Not only are they denied of their childhoods, the society is also robbed of the harmony expected in homes with matured partners. Wasila Tasi’u, 14, who in 2015 rebelled against the practice of forced marriage in Kano State confessed to poisoning her 35-year-old husband and three others. While that is not a common occurrence, it nonetheless underscores the gravity of the situation.

There are also health implications to the issue of early marriage for girls. Nigeria is reputed to have the highest incidence of Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) in the world, with an estimated 20,000 new cases reported every year. VVF, an abnormal fistulous tract extending that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine, is often caused by childbirth and most of its victims in Nigeria are predominantly victims of child marriage.

Some of the enablers of child marriage in Nigeria include illiteracy as well as religious and cultural practices. All these factors came into play in 2013 when the Senate resolved to retain Section 29 (4) (b) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) despite the fact that its review committee had, in its draft amendment bill recommended the deletion of Section 29 (4) (b) which stipulates that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” Though this section deals with the qualifying age for renunciation of citizenship, its connection with child marriage arose from the preceding Section 29 (4) (a) which provides that “full age means the age of eighteen years and above”.

Interestingly, the recommendation had been overwhelmingly passed by the Senate until religion was introduced into the issue on grounds of Item 61, Part 1 of the Second Schedule of the constitution which empowers the National Assembly to consider “the formation, annulment and dissolution of marriages other than marriages under Islamic law and Customary law including matrimonial causes relating thereto.”
While there is no generally acceptable marriage age among the states, Section 23 of the Child Rights Act makes it a criminal offence to marry a girl under 18 years and prescribes a penalty of five years’ imprisonment. Unfortunately, many of the states in the north have yet to adopt the act despite the benefits and protections it confers on every child. We call on these states to do so forthwith, and for those who have enacted it into law to also commence implementation. But beyond that, there is an urgent need for the federal government and civil society to embark on an awareness campaign, particularly in areas where child bride is in vogue, with a view to highlighting the health, educational, economic, social and psychological implications of this practice.