How Non-ratification of Child Rights Act Fuels Child Marriage

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Since the passage of Child Rights Act in 2003, only 25 states have domesticated the law, while 10 states in the North are yet to. Adedayo Akinwale writes that this has inevitably fueled the menace of child marriage

When the Child Rights Act (CRA) was passed into law in 2003, it appeared to be a total victory for the Child Rights campaigners that the teething problems facing the girl child, which include child marriage (marriage below 18 years of age) and inhibiting factors that worsen a girl’s chance of entering and completing school, would be tackled head on.

While the issue of child marriage has globally been identified as one of the major detriments to development and a major impediment to the realisation of human rights, 18 years after CRA was passed into law, Nigeria still has an unenviable place in the comity of nations as one of the countries with the highest rate of child marriage in the world.

Beijing Declaration

In 1995, before the girls of today were even born, the fourth World Conference on Women made history for the women’s rights agenda with the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, the most visionary blueprint for the empowerment of women and girls.

This was made possible by 30,000 women and men from nearly 200 countries, who arrived in Beijing, China for the Fourth World Conference on Women, determined to recognise the rights of women and girls as human rights. The conference culminated in the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: the most comprehensive policy agenda for the empowerment of women.

According to the UN, it was to celebrate all of the achievements by, with and for girls since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the passage of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, that the theme was borne.

In the years following, women pressed this agenda forward, leading global movements on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health rights to equal pay. More girls today are attending and completing school, fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children, and more are gaining the skills they need to excel in the future world of work.

Today, these movements have expanded. They are being organised by and for adolescent girls, and tackling issues like child marriage, education inequality, gender-based violence, climate change, self-esteem, and girls’ rights to enter places of worship or public spaces during menstruation. Girls are proving that if given a voice, they can change the world.

However, they noted that despite these achievements, that was not to say that many of the commitments made to girls were fulfilled as each year, 12 million girlsunder 18 are married; 130 million girlsworldwide are still out of school; And approximately 15 million adolescent girlsaged 15-19 have experience forced sex.

UN Declaration of Child Rights

Also tilted at protection the rights of the child, of which girls are included, The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, sometimes known as the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child was borne.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, is an international document promoting child rights, drafted by Eglantyne Jebband adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, and adopted in an extended form by the United Nations in 1959.

Thus, the UN adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1989 which harped on the fact that the child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

Despite these existing documents to protect the rights of the child, including the female child, so many challenges have hampered its 100 per cent fulfillment.

Girl-child Marriages

One of such challenges faced by the girl-child in Nigeria is early marriage. Nigeria has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world. In Nigeria, 39 per cent of girls are married off before age 18 and 16 per cent are married before they turn 15 years old.

However, according to the NDHS 2013, the number of Nigerian girls that are married before their 18th birthday is as high as 58.2 per cent. The prevalence of child marriage varies widely across the country, but figures are as high as 76 per cent in the North-west region, compared with 10 per cent in the South-east.

Ending child marriage requires strategies for girls’ empowerment, social and cultural norms change, legal reform, and policy action. The Child Rights Act of 2003 set the national legal minimum age of marriage at 18 years but it is yet to be ef- fectively implemented. There are 12 Northern states that have yet to pass the bill and agree on the minimum age of marriage. To be effective, state assemblies must take the necessary meas- ures to implement the Child Rights Act, including concrete steps to execute the minimum age of mar-riage. Along with the Child Rights Act, Ni- geria at national and sub-national levels needs to fast track the im-plementation of the Universal Basic Education act with special emphasis on girl education.

Also, according to UNICEF, Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa with more than 23 million girls and women who were married as children, most of them from poor and rural communities. While data suggests a decline of nine per cent in the prevalence of child marriage since 2003, and a projected further decrease of six per cent by 2030, Nigeria’s rapid population growth means that the number of child brides will in fact increase by more than one million by 2030 and double by 2050.

Meanwhile, a United Nations report released in 2018 revealed that there are 22 million girls and women who married in their childhood in Nigeria.

According to Save the Children International (SCI), an international non governmental organisation promoting rights of children, 32 per cent of women marry before their 18th birthday in the North-east.

Relatedly, adolescent girls continue to die from complications arising from early child bearing and they continue to drop out of the school system before completing their education, therefore reducing their chances of escaping generational poverty.

Also, in the North-east, the 2018 National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) report quoted by SCI revealed that 24.5 per cent of adolescents between the ages of 15 to 19 years get pregnant, and out of that figure, 23.0 per cent are in Gombe State as compared to other sister states in the zone. The breakdown for other states are as follows; Bauchi 40 per cent, Taraba 24 per cent, Adamawa 23.9 per cent, Borno 13.5 per cent and Yobe 22.2 per cent.

Also, the NDHS showed that early child marriage amounts to 29.0 per cent of girls at 15 years and 27.1 per cent of girls above 15 years, therefore reducing their chances of escaping poverty. However, these statistics are likely to increase with the current security situation in the region.

Undoubtedly, one of the major reasons for the prevalence of child marriage is the refusal of 10 states from the North to domesticate Child Rights Act, while 25 states have already domesticated it.

Nevertheless, in states where CRA had been domesticated, abuse of children rights and most especially, the issue of rape cases, child marriage had been on the increase due to lack of political will to implement the Act.

In the Federal Capital Territory, a total of 105 sexual and gender-based violence were recorded between March 23 and May 29, 2020 according to the police report, despite the fact that the Act came into being in the nation’s capital since 2003.

Advocacy

At the moment, 10 states are yet to ratify the Child Rights Act. The states are: Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Yobe, Sokoto and Zamfara states.

It was based on this and in an effort to further increase advocacy that Save the Children International trained journalists to bring the issue on the front burner. The training with the theme, “Towards Ending Child Marriage in Kastina and Gombe”, was aimed at increasing advocacy and putting more pressure on the remaining states to domesticate the CRA.

The Country Director of Save the Children International, Ms. Mercy Gichuhi, said the ratification of the Act would provide a legal framework for the protection of the rights of children.

Gichuhi who was represented by the Advocacy, Campaigns and Policy Manager, Ms. Hope Oduma, noted that it was difficult to defend the rights of children without enabling laws that will give legal backing to anything to be done for the children in terms of rights protection.

She also said while Gombe, Bauchi and some other states in the North are notorious for child marriage, Ebonyi State is the hotbed of child marriage in the South-east.

Gichuchi pointed out that the issue of child marriage in Ebonyi was not being reported by the media because people in the area refuse to come out and discuss the menace as a result of pride. She therefore called for a holistic approach to put an end to the issue of child marriage in the country.

Educational Gender Disparity

In terms of equality in academic pursuit, the girl-child often comes in lacking. Although education is a basic human right and has been recognised as such since the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, there is still an existing gender disparity that faces the girl-child. In most communities, the male child is often bestowed on the privilege to education as against the girl-child.

Some factors might be responsible for this- cultural and socio-economic reasons- that prevent the girl-child from having adequate access to education.

Culturally, the girl-child is made to stay at home and learn to tend to her family instead of attending school. Another reason is that the Nigerian tradition attaches higher value to a man than a woman, whose place is believed to be the kitchen.

The socio-economic factors that have prevented the girl-child from education on the other hand boils down to poverty, early marriage, child labour, as well as some structural and institutional factors.

Despite the fact that education is a human right which helps children including girls to develop their critical thinking and acquire life skills that enable them to live with dignity as engaged citizens, 54 per cent of Nigeria’s over 13.2 million children, aged five-14 years that do not go to school are girls.

While this is the highest of any country in the world, it also means that the poor and marginalised girls are disproportionately affected. Child marriage remains one of the major impediments to sustainable development and realisation of human rights. In the North-east, 24.5 per cent of girls marry at age 15, while 27.1 per cent of girls at above 15 years.

The Situation in Gombe State

According to SCI, Gombe state is one of the eight states in the North that have the country’s worst girl education,

highest female illiteracy, highest adolescent girl marriage, highest under 15 child bearing and highest risk of maternal death and injury.

The NDHS 2018 report further revealed that only 43.7 per cent of children in Gombe State reportedly completed primary education. Also, out of the 58.1 per cent of children who are out of primary school in the state, 52.8 per cent are girls. Girls also constitute 56.1 per cent of 53.1 per cent of children out of secondary school, a situation reinforced by Child Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM).

Highlights of Child Rights Act

On child marriage, the Act says, no person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.

On child betrothal, the Act says, no parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person.

The Act also says a person who marries a child; or to whom a child is betrothed; or who promotes the marriage of a child; or who betroths a child, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000; or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.

On education, the Act says every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education and it shall be the duty of the government in Nigeria to provide such education.

The Act further says that every parent or guardian shall ensure that his child or ward attends and completes his primary school education; and junior secondary education.

The Act says a female child who becomes pregnant, before completing her education shall be given the opportunity, after delivery, to continue with her education, on the basis of her individual ability.

The Act further says where a parent, guardian or person who has care and custody of a child, fails in the duty imposed on him under subsection (2) of this section, commits an offence and is liable on first conviction to be reprimanded and ordered to undertake community service; or on second conviction, to a fine of N200,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or to both such fine and imprisonment.

Impediments/ Issues of Child Marriage in Northern Nigeria

Many of the interventions designed to directly or indirectly end the practice of child marriage have tended to fall into a number of thematic categories. Unfortunately, many of the interventions were designed independently of each other and operationalised within the parameters of different sector programmes or as stand-alone initiatives. The weak coordinated approach and overall guiding strategy has diluted the potential impact of many interventions or led to competing and at times contradictory approaches.

Also, the existing legal framework in Nigeria is not absolute in terms of defining the minimum age for marriage. The legal system is multiple in nature and, as a result, marriages can take place in accordance with either religious, customary or statutory law. The legal situation regarding the marriage of children is further complicated by differences between statutory and socio-cultural definitions of and understandings of a child.

Moreso, conflicting definitions of a child can lead to complications in applying statutory law in a consistent manner, but also in terms of how laws resonate with communities. This can lead to confusion when it comes to increasing awareness on children’s rights or how children are protected under different statutory laws or Sharia law, or treated under customary practices.

Regrettably, marriage has become an individual and collective strategy for coping with poverty, managing risks, securing individual and financial benefits in the present and the future as well as a means of escaping from unfavorable living arrangements or conditions. Poverty is a complex matter, requiring a holistic approach. This will include advocacy and input into policy and legislation review.

Action Plan

According to Save the Children.org, in its publication tagged ‘Changing the story of the Nigerian Girl-child’ what needs to be done is a tripartite process that should involve the government, civil society organisations (CSOs) and development partners.

For the government at national and sub-national levels, the organisation said they must take the lead, adding that the states that have not passed the Child Rights Act need to do so immediately and start implementation.

They further posited that since the Universal Basic Education Act 2004 mandates free and compulsory education for all children up to junior secondary level in Nigeria, government at national and sub-national level must ensure the effective implementation of this law as a key first step towards reducing early marriage.

They noted that government also needs to ensure that quality teaching and learning are taking place in all primary and junior secondary schools, as well as remove all barriers that make it difficult for young girls to go to school, including the costs associated with school attendance such as uniforms, extra school-imposed levies and transportation costs as schools must also be sensitive to cultural norms.

For the CSOs, they charged them to organise themselves by putting continuous pressure on government at national and sub-national level regarding the implementation of free and compulsory education, as well as monitor progress and tracking of resources to ensure accountability.

Also, community leaders needs to ensure that community structures continue to respond positively to all efforts encouraging girls to stay in school until at least the completion of junior secondary education.

To the development partners and donors, they charged them to put the girl-child development at the center of their development efforts, knowing that doing so will lead to rapid and lasting change.

They are also to collaborate with government at national and sub-national levels to take on these important issues, just as continual production of evidence and learning will also need to be supported by development partners.

Considering the increase in sexual and gender-based violence, as well as child marriage, the 10 states in the North should put machinery in motion to ensure that the Child Rights Act is domesticated, while those states that have domesticated it should ensure implementation.