Child marriage is becoming a widespread tradition in most parts of the world and particularly in Nigeria with varying incidences in different geo-political regions despite its injurious consequences on the health of young girls and its unwholesome and undermining effects on national development.Joyce Remi- Babayeju looks at this societal ill against the girl child.
The United Nations Children’s’ Fund, UNICEF defines Child Marriage as a formal marriage or informal union of a girl before age 18.
Child marriage which is an old tradition is early forced marriage which often is on a young girl under age 18 and it has placed untold hardship and deprivation on the shoulders of the girl-child.
It is a formal marriage or informal union before age 18 for both boys and girls, although girls are mostly affected. In this type of marriage most times the union is without the consent of the girl who usually is oblivious of such negotiations around her which often results in termination of her education and human rights.
Despite this unfortunately practice, the issue of Child marriages is common throughout history. For instance Princess Emilia of Saxony was married off at age 16 in1533, to 48 year old George the Pious, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach.
Statistics show that the wave of child marriage is waxing strong across the world as about 15 million girls experience forced marriage each year and 41,000 girls every day in lower-income countries, including Nigeria.
Some of the reasons adduced to this harmful practice include poverty, bride price, dowry, cultural traditional practices, laws that allow child marriages, religious and societal pressures, insecurity, customs, fear of remaining unmarried, illiteracy, financial gains, and ignorance of health implications associated with it and the list goes on as each community deems it fit.
Also unfortunately this practice is still fairly widespread in developing countries, Like Nigeria parts of Sub- Saharan Africa South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, and Latin America.
According to UNICEF survey (2003-2009),countries with the highest prevalence of marriages below the age of 18 are Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea and the Central African Republic, with a high rate of above 60%, while Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali and Ethiopia were the countries with child marriage rates greater than 20% below the age of 15.
UNICEF, Progress for Children Report of 2010, shows that
One third of women aged 20-24 years old in the developing countries were married as children.
Nigeria joined the world to mark the 2016 World Population Day, WPD, on 11th July, with the theme, ‘’Investing in Teenage Girls’’, with emphasis on young adolescent girls across the world.
The objective of the WPD is to create awareness on current and emerging population issues as they impact on the quality of the population.
The theme for this year’s celebration cannot is not far from being right because of the growing rate of deprivation inflicted on adolescent girls all in the name of tradition and cultures of societies.
The girl-child has suffered all forms of violence namely sexual, physical and emotions and lately insecurity in the face of terrorism and humanitarian crisis.
According to National Population 2014 Data Survey on Violence Against Children, VAC, approximately 6 out of 10 Nigerian children under age 18 experience some form of physical, emotional and sexual violence, one in four girls while one in 10 boys experienced sexual violence and one in 6 girls and one in 5 boys experience emotional violence.
In many countries, once a girl reaches the age of puberty she is deemed first by her family, and then community as ready for marriage, pregnancy and childbirth. As a result of this biological change in young girls in most communities, they are married off and forced to leave school and abandon education for life, thereby surcharging their future on the altar of marriage and pregnancy.
Most times victims of child marriages suffer a devastating condition and trauma as a result of delivering a child before their body is fit for such natural function.
Child marriage clearly is a violation of human rights under international law but sadly most countries are still practicing this age-long tradition with a lot of myths to justify it. It is also mostly practiced in nations and states that are yet to sign and domesticate the United Nations, UN, Child Rights Acts, CRA.
In Nigeria, only 23 states have domesticate the Child Rights Act, CRA, 2013 and the remaining states which are still to do so are still entrenched in child marriage practice.
A ready example is the case of Senator Sani Yerima, a former governor of Zamfara State who married a 13 under- aged girls as a prerequisite for rights for their throne. Old men who marry young girls to show off their wealth and even poor men who feel it is their right to marry minors.
It is a harmful practice that deprives girls their fundamental human right to choose if, when, and whom to marry and what type of family to create. The victims’ rights to education, health, and security and to grow into fulfilled adulthood is often stifled when a girl under the age of 18 is forced into marriage usually with a man old enough to be her grand-father, father, uncle, elder brother or even a senior citizen.
Often, only one marriage-partner is a child, usually the girl-child who is denied her childhood experience. Once married, child brides have little or no access to education and economic opportunities, and they and their families are more likely to live in poverty. Child brides also face a higher risk of experiencing dangerous, life-threatening complications in pregnancy, contracting HIV, and suffering domestic and sexual violence.
Globally about 20,00 girls between ages 15 and 19 give birth everyday in developing countries, with an estimated number of 3.2 million unsafe abortions among girls every year while about 10% of girls aged 15 and 19 have had sex. And 1 in 3 girls in developing countries is married off before they turn 18.
In Nigeria, the story is the same with about 43% of girls under age of 18 being married off while 17% are married before they get to the age of 15.
The prevalence of child marriage varies widely from one region to another, with figures as high as 76% in the North West and as low as 10% in the South East regions of the country. The case is worst in states that have refused to domesticate the CRA.
In northern Nigeria, where child marriage is perceived as part of their norms and values, parents complain that there are no schools in most of their communities and in places where there are pockets of dilapidated structures called schools, the quality of education is so poor that early marriage is considered a better alternative for their daughters.
Chairman of National Population Commission, NPopC, Chief Eze Duruiheoma at the 2016 World Population Day press briefing in Abuja condemned the spade of violence against teenage girls, including child marriage which is a major cause of teenage pregnancy and lack of access to reproductive health information and services, unsafe pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, STD, including HIV.
Child marriage and teenage pregnancies is second leading cause of deaths among girls between ages 15 and 19 due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth including VESICO Viginal Fistula, VVF, Chief Duruiheoma lamented.
Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey Data, NDHS, (2013) shows that an estimated 23% of women aged 15-19 have began childbearing out of which 17% have had their first child and 6% are pregnant with their first child. Also 32% of teenagers in rural areas have begun childbearing and 10% in urban areas of Nigeria. The report shows disparities within the geo-political zones as follows- Northwest 36%,, Northeast 32%, North Central 19%, South Central 12%, South East 8% and South West 8%.
The Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Senator Aisha Alhassan also during the WPD has said that child marriage remains one of the major challenges affecting investment in teenage girls in Nigeria, as she promised that her ministry and relevant stakeholders are planning a National Launch of Campaign to End Child Marriage in Nigeria.
Child marriages is not only common among the illiterates and have-nots in our society because there are instances where the rich and educated also indulge in this practice and it is also a common practice with paedophiles, men who easily fall in love with minors.
Owing to the bad effects of child marriage on the next generation of girls, two African countries, Gambia and Tanzania, last week banned child marriage, with tough penalties for those who breach the rulings.
President Yayha Jamme of Gambia during the country’s Eid –ul – Fitr celebrations had announced that anyone marrying a girl below 18 would be jailed for up to 20 years.
He had warned that parents and imams who perform the ceremonies would also face prison.
“If you want to know whether what I am saying is true or not, try it tomorrow and see”, he warned.
In December last year, the Gambian president also banned female genital mutilation (FGM), with a prison sentence of up to three years for those that ignored the ban.
Also in Tanzania, a high court ruling imposed an outright ban on marriage of under-age of 18 for boys and girls, with appropriate sanctions.
In the Gambia about 30% of underage girls are married , while in Tanzania the rate is 37%.Before the Tanzania ruling, girls as young as 14 could marry with parental consent, while it was 18 for boys.
Child marriage and teenage pregnancies has done enough harm to adolescent girls as well as deflating the potentials of young girls who hitherto would have realised their potentials and contribute to the national development of the country.
There is an adage that says that what a man can do a woman can do better. This means that adolescent girls can do as much as their male counterparts.
Nigeria should take a cue from these two African countries namely Gambia and Tanzania to place a ban and stiff penalties on parents and their accomplices who aid child marriage. But before this can be achieved those recalcitrant states which have refused to domesticate the Child Rights Act should be forced to do so and place sanctioned for non-compliance.
This is the only way forward to move the country and to realize most of the Sustainable Development Goals which centres on girls and the future of the next generation of Nigerian mothers.