South West Governors’ Forum may get us one step towards ending child marriage

There is a dangerous contradictory of the Nigerian constitution that has been a thorn in the side of all right-thinking people for years, but which nevertheless remains because a section of the country needs appeasing for reasons that make no legal or moral sense.

The contradictory bit is in Section 2 – on renunciation of citizenship – under which in defining what it means to be an adult which is a prerequisite for citizenship renunciation, subsection (4) (a) and (b) with no sense of irony conferred adulthood on what it termed any ‘woman’ who is married.

The subsection currently reads, (4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section. (a) “full age” means the age of 18 years and above; (b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.

This error – if that is what it is – which recently led to the Joint National Assembly Technical Committee on Electoral Act amendments seek voting power for underage married girls – is on the verge of being corrected, thanks to a recent proposal made by The South West Governors’ Forum in the ongoing constitutional review.

The forum called for the deletion of Section 29(4) (b), for what it rightly said, “Negates the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 and the Child’s Rights Act 2003, which outlaws child marriage.”

According to UNICEF, over 44% of girls in Nigeria are married before the age of 18 and 18% are married before the age of 15 (Child Not Brides, 2017). This makes Nigeria the third country with the highest absolute number of child brides in the world at 3.5 million.

The proposal by the governors is not the first time that a call has been made to delete part of the constitution.

On 16 July 2013, Nigerian senators gathered to consider recommendations made to them by a committee tasked with reviewing the country’s Constitution. The Committee recommended to senators that section 29(4)(b) be deleted from the Constitution.

An initial vote saw a majority of senators vote in favour of deleting the section, but this was challenged by Senator Ahmed Yerima – who has a history of marrying a child of 13 himself – on the grounds that the deletion of the section discriminate against Muslim women, who are considered “of age” once they are married.

This is important to mention because this latest proposal by the South West Governors’ Forum is likely to meet a similar resistance from the Muslim North, whose population will be informed of this as an attack on their faith.

It is important that the forum doesn’t simply push a proposal without mounting a proper sensitization campaign on why this amendment is important in ridding the constitution of an avoidable contradiction. Why removing this contradiction is essential to establishing a homogenous foundational legal framework via the constitution that unites the country in a common moral base.

Also, why removing this is just one step closer to protecting the girl child from gender-based violence which child marriage indisputably is.

Child marriage, via Shari’ah, will still remain an obstacle in the way of that, but one step at a time.

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