Nigeria has some of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. In some areas, particularly the Northwest region, nearly half of the girls in the country are married by the age of 15, often to much older men.
The government has tried to ban marriage under the age of 18 by passing the Child Rights Act in 2003. Federal law, however, can be implemented differently at the state level. To date, only a few of the country’s 36 states have developed provisions to execute the law. Furthermore, Nigeria has three different legal systems operating simultaneously-civil, customary, and Islamic-and state and federal governments only have control over marriages that take place within the civil system. This type of governance makes it difficult to curtail child marriages across the country1.
The consequences of child marriages are devastating for girls:
“When I was 10 my parents arranged for me to marry in the forest. They pretended it was just a party. But it was a wedding and they sent me away. My mother never told me I was going to be married. They came and took me by force. I cried but it didn't make any difference,” Child Bride, 10 years old2.
Married girls receive basically no education. Only 2 percent of 15-19 year old married girls attend school, compared to 69 percent of unmarried girls1. Lack of education limits girls only to the reproductive roles-submissive wives and mothers. A lack of education also means that young girls lack knowledge about sexual relations, thus denying girls the ability to make informed decisions about sexual relations, planning and family, and most importantly, her health2.
Having children at such a young age is also a serious health hazard. Mothers whose bodies are physically incapable of going through childbirth suffer horrible injuries that leave them physically and emotionally scarred for life. One of the most severe consequences of child pregnancy is fistulas. The Ministry of Health estimates between 200,000-400,000 girls and women are living with fistulas1. Fistula is a condition that leaves girls leaking urine and/or feces and often results in abandonment by partners, family and friends. These girls therefore become stigmatized by their communities and often resort to working in the sex industry as result of being shunned by society.
Fistula is not the only medical condition that young brides are susceptible to. Young girls are much more likely than unmarried girls to contract HIV from their usually older, polygamous husbands. Married girls have less knowledge about HIV and are less likely to negotiate condom use. They are also unaware that HIV can be passed on from mother to child1.
Despite all these devastating consequences, child marriage still continues to prevail and there is considerable opposition to the law banning child marriage, particularly in Northern Nigeria. This is partly due to families living in poverty who cannot afford to care for their daughters; having notions of morality and honour with a high value placed on a girl’s virginity, and religion. One cleric states that it is difficult to accept banning of child marriages because it is permissible according to religion3.
The way forward is a difficult and challenging path, but a necessary one. A lot can be done to promote later, chosen and legal marriage. Some suggestions include raising awareness of the extent of early marriage and human rights abuse it constitutes; engaging communities through public campaigns, pledges or incentive schemes; and raising awareness for parents, community leaders, and policymakers about the importance and necessity of enrolling girls in schools and completing education.
1“Child Marriage Briefing Nigeria”: Population Council, August 2004. http://www.populationcouncil.org/pdfs/briefingsheets/NIGERIA.pdf
2 “Child Marriage:” Forward: Safeguarding Rights and Dignity. 2012
3 Navai, Ramita. Unreported World: Nigeria Child Brides.2008.
By May el Habachi