by Deoye Falade
Senator Yerima simply pointed out that in Islam, once a woman is married, she is automatically of age to make all adult decisions, including the right to divorce and renunciation of citizenship, this is as obtains in Nigeria’s constitution.
So we’ve done the right thing in the fight against child marriage; protested with righteous indignation on social media platforms, gathered to sign petitions, and created ‘memes’ with really catchy taglines like: #EducationNotEjaculation, #ChildNotBride, #BooksNotBoobs, etc.
Hope we’re calmer now?
Like the majority of people – including me – felt, something had to be done to stop our ‘irresponsible’ senate and rein in their seemingly perverse tendencies. As it were, we’d not forgotten about marriage of a 13-year-old Egyptian girl to Senator Yerima. Why would they seek to legalise child marriage? Did they even think of their children? What vile, immoral law would they seek to pass again if we let this slide? We had questions aplenty and most importantly; we needed to act – fast!
Surprisingly, amidst the entire media furore, every lawyer I knew was practically silent on the issue. Surely, they should be the ones making the loudest noise. So I decided to ignore the emotions and take a look at the section that was up for debate in the constitution. Turns out the section wasn’t even about child marriage.
In a bid to sell newspapers and gain page views, the newspapers and online mediums seemed to misconstrue the issue; or rather, they also failed to take a closer look at the constitution and simply (s)elected to hype the child marriage part. In my opinion, this was a great disservice to the people because the media has a responsibility to inform with the unerring accuracy.
The real issue was the ‘Citizen Renunciation Rights’ according to Section 29 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This section prescribes the processes to follow and the conditions under which a Nigerian could renounce his/her citizenship. The facts surrounding the debate on the floor of the Senate (according to www.newsrescue.com) are:
1. The topic voted on in the senate was not, the “age of marriage,” as it has been made to appear.
2. The presentation by Senator Yerima was not about the age at which a woman should marry.
3. The 35 Nigerian senators who voted against the deletion of the segment did not vote against child marriage. Rather, they voted to uphold women’s unalienable rights, even over men.
4. Senator Yerima did not introduce any thing new; he simply pointed out in upholding Nigeria’s constitution, that segments can not simply be deleted without proper vote and due process.
5. The segment to be deleted threatened to deprive women of their rights.
Concerning the Citizenship Renunciation Rights (Section 29), the constitution states the following:
(1) Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.
(2) The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection (1) of this section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria.
(3) The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if-
(a) The declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or
(b) In his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section.
(a) “Full age” means the age of eighteen years and above;
(b) Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.
From the above, it can be seen that the section deals with conditions under which a Nigerian citizen is considered eligible to make a declaration to revoke his citizenship. As such, “full age” to renounce or revoke Nigerian citizenship is used in reference to being allowed to make important decisions, including those found under Section 29. For both sexes, “full age” is 18 and above. However, according to subsection 4 (b), a woman can be regarded to be of “full age” to make decisions as serious as the revocation of her citizenship, once she is married.
A deletion of this section of the constitution in my understanding will further infringe on the rights of women as they would no longer enjoy the freedom stated above. This constitutional provision actually safe-guards women’s rights by allowing for instance, a married woman, who feels deprived by Nigeria, the right to denounce her citizenship. It is not related to child-marriage/sexual intercourse in any way.
The real issue being addressed is the age at which a woman is eligible to make full fledged decisions, such as divorce. If this section was deleted, then a 16-year-old once married, will not be considered of ‘full age’ to challenge the marriage in court, or to revoke her citizenship if she wishes to seek asylum via the United Nations, or to any single citizenship nation. Such a person will have to wait till she is 18.
Senator Yerima simply pointed out that in Islam, once a woman is married, she is automatically of age to make all adult decisions, including the right to divorce and renunciation of citizenship, this is as obtains in Nigeria’s constitution. What this means is that the constitution has always recognised the fact that a female, once married, is considered to be of full-age. Thus, our problem is not with the senators who voted for or against the deletion of the section; the problem lies with the constitution itself.
While we can argue that those who voted against the deletion, such as Yerima, have invariably voted for the legalisation of child marriage, it isn’t that simple. The deletion of that section doesn’t in any way affect the child marriage issue. This is because the constitution was written with consideration to certain established customary and religious laws concerning the matter of a female being married before the age of 18. The customary law isn’t much of a concern because the changing times and modernity are making such ideas a thing of the past. But the constitutional consideration to the Islamic law aspect is where the headache is. The way I see it, where the Senate screwed up was when they allowed Islamic/Sharia law to be entrenched. Too bad Yerima was the one who first advocated for the adoption of Sharia when he was governor of Zamfara State. Tough love, tough luck.
Thus, we have a parallel law in force concerning the issue of ‘underage’ marriage that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria can do little about. Even with all the petitions we’ve signed, a Muslim who subscribes to Sharia will have full legal backing to marry a 13-year-old girl. And as long as she is married, she is of ‘full age’. That’s where I believe we screwed up. That’s why Yerima was able to marry the ‘underage’ Egyptian girl without getting arrested. No thanks to our defective constitution.
This doesn’t however mean that the advocacy should stop. In as much as we seem to have been backed into a legal corner, we have a lot of education to do. In my layman’s understanding of the Holy Quran, a female can be considered ‘ripe’ for marriage if she can both ‘physically’ and ‘mentally’ cope with the rigours of marriage, sexual intercourse and childbirth. Surely, anyone with an ounce of common sense would see that a 13-year-old isn’t physically or mentally fit for marriage but the absence of any fixed age has bent the rules in favour of selfish, perverse and irresponsible men, and parents who chose to give their underage girls away in marriage.
Our fight isn’t really with the Senate; they’re only working with a constitution that is riddled with loopholes. Our fight should be against ignorance and backwardness. We’ve registered our displeasure against such perverseness and I think that we’ve once again caught their attention. We shouldn’t stop here though, the advocacy for a full scale constitutional review must continue; it’s taking too long
Now that we know what we’re fighting for, can we keep on fighting
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.