When Nigeria is ready to tackle child marriage, this might be the first step

Child marriage is still an ongoing menace in Nigeria that does not appear to be going away any time soon. Nigeria ranks 11th among countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. There are many reasons why this is.

There are several, often contrary, laws regarding the minimum age of marriage in the country. The Northern region (a huge chunk of which enforces Islamic law), has the lowest minimum age of marriage at as low as 12 years. Not coincidentally, the region remains home to the highest cases of Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF) – an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina which results in the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vagina.

Across the rest of the country, the Marriage Act of 1990 reigns, which sets the legal age of marriage at 21 with allowance for younger persons to get married with the written consent of a parent or guardian.

Following Nigeria’s ratification of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the country introduced yet another law, The Child Rights Act (2003) which sets the legal age of marriage at 18. The law is aimed at curbing many injustices against children, child marriage is just one aspect of that.

There is a caveat however, that is in the way of allowing that law to achieve much of anything. The Child Rights Act is only applicable in states that have domesticated it, and so far over 10 Northern states have shunned it.

Many who defend the right of Northern Nigeria to practice this menace – legislators among them, cite the right to practice one’s religion without state interference as the basis for their argument. That reason is however moot because a minimum age of marriage is not specified in traditional Islam. There is however, a religious obligation for a father to protect the chastity of his girl child, and many choose marriage, sometimes ahead of puberty, to meet this obligation. At its core therefore, this menace is often rooted in purity culture.

An argument on economic grounds is also often made. For a people that give birth prolifically, that may seem like a sound argument. This too isn’t because it is rooted in the patriarchal devaluation of the girl child.

Many families, when faced with the hard choice of which child to sponsor through formal education or skill acquisition will choose a male child. The logic is simple, why waste investment on someone whose ‘ownership’ will soon exchange hands, which then has the potential of a loss of investment for the struggling family?

The Nigerian government stated that efforts have been made to sensitise states about the Child Rights Act in hopes of improving its enforcement, but to enforce something one has to first implement it.

Also, to value what a law preventing child marriage could achieve to the welfare of women overall, and the girl child especially, one has to have high regard for the rights of women and girls. Nigeria’s track record on that is far from model.

Until last year, the Police Act governing one of the most important security bodies in the country was blatantly discriminatory towards women – curtailing women’s career choices and imposing puritanical modesty expectations on them, while their male peers enjoy both freedoms unfettered. The Act has been repealed to address that, yet months after, a female police officer was dismissed from the force for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

There are many ways regions can be enticed to domesticate the Child Rights Act, one is a financial aid package that comes with the demand to domesticate in order to gain access to funding.

Ideological battles are harder to fight, and harder still, if even those fighting it don’t fully see the intrinsic value of who they are fighting for – women and girls in this case. The former may therefore be the best compromise.

The question is, is the Nigerian Government invested enough to pursue this?

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