Although Nigeria is a very multicultural and religiously diverse country, most Nigerians would agree that marriage is one of the most celebrated customs in the country. Both the wealthy and the poor invite their family and friends to partake in marriage ceremonies. Whether one is from the North or the South, merry cheers, laughter, music, dancing, and sharing food and drinks are part and parcel of a typical Nigerian wedding. Amidst all of these wedding ceremonies, society rarely places a spotlight on girls who are married off by their parents at an early age. Many of these girls later on become tormented by a physically, socially, and psychologically crippling phenomenon. This phenomenon starts with the letter “V”. V stands for Vesicovaginal Fistula.
Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF) is developed during prolonged obstructed labour when the baby is pressed against the pelvis thereby restricting the flow of blood to the tissues in the vagina and the bladder which causes the tissues to die creating a hole between the vagina and the bladder. Young girls and early teenagers have a high risk of suffering from prolonged obstructed labour because their pelvis is not fully developed to allow for vaginal delivery. VVF also causes an uncontrollable leakage of urine which is accompanied by an unpleasant smell. The girls and young women who experience VVF are often abandoned by their husbands and families which illustrates why they are affected by this disease not only physically but also socially and psychologically.
There are 2 million cases of VVF around the world out of which Nigeria has between 400,000 and 800,000 VVF cases. 37 percent of girls between ages 15 and 19 are forced into marriage in Nigeria. VVF is particularly prevalent in Northern Nigeria where early marriage is widely practiced by people living in rural communities. According to Nigerian law, anyone below the age of 21 is allowed to get married provided that they have their parent’s consent. In North West and North Central Nigeria, the minimum age for marriage is 14; however, some families go as far as marring their daughters at the tender age of 11 or 12. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 70 percent of the VVF cases recorded in Nigeria come from the North. There are 20,000 new cases of VVF recorded annually in Nigeria and 90 percent of these cases are untreated.
One of the most influential factors that lead to early marriage is poverty. The International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) noted that the poorest countries have the highest rates of child marriages in the world. Poor families are incentivised to marry their girls at an early age because first, the economic burden of raising that child would be relieved through marriage. Second, the family benefits financially from early marriage through the dowry or bride price which is customarily paid by the groom’s family to the family of the bride. Third, poor families would rather marry their female children then invest in their education. Some poor families prefer to send their boys to school then their girls. These supposed incentives for early marriage are the reasons why 80 percent of girls from poor households in Nigeria get married before the age of 18. In comparison, only 22 percent of girls from wealthy families get married before the age of 18.
When young girls marry at an early age, they are liable to also have a lower level of education and low economic status. Many girls who are married early are forced to also drop out of school.
Young married girls are at a disadvantage of obtaining an education or employment because their household responsibilities, pregnancies, raising children and social restrictions prevent them from doing so. Education is one of the strongest factors to protect young girls from early marriage. UNICEF reported that studies indicate that higher levels of schooling for girls decrease the chances of early marriage. Girls who complete low levels of education, such as primary school, also have a lower risk of getting married early. Therefore, education is an important factor in the lives of young girls because it prevents them from getting married early and provides them with an opportunity to earn a living.
There are a few non-governmental organizations which focus on empowering or protecting the rights of women in Nigeria such as Women Empowerment and Legal Aid Initiative (WELA), Women Development International Association (WODIA) and the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development (FORWARD). However, there is a need for such NGOs and other civil society groups as well as private individuals to work together towards increasing awareness across the nation about the negative consequences of early marriage. With 70 percent of Nigerians living in poverty, millions of girls who reside in rural communities are at risk of getting married at an early age and possibly developing VVF during the birth of their first child.
Currently, there are 36 million girls and women in Nigeria who are not educated. Educating a girl would not only help empower her by protecting her from early marriage, but also assists in the reduction of poverty in the country. By educating a girl, one is providing her with an opportunity to generate income, increase in the productivity of the labour market, and acquire knowledge which will ensure the health and wellbeing of her children. Educating a girl also increases the likelihood of her sending her own children to school.
Nigeria only has 13 centres which provide surgical treatment for VVF patients; these centres cannot cater for majority of the VVF cases in the country. While there is a need to increase these VVF centres and rehabilitation facilities, the best course of action for the Nigerian community would be to spread awareness on the negative effects of early marriage and the importance of education in the lives of girls. The Nigerian government’s efforts to fight poverty, illiteracy, and successfully enhance the development of the country are impeded by the failure to protect girls from early marriage and a life with no education.