Suffer the Little Children: Recent Nigerian Legislation Raises the Specter of Child Marriage

on July 31, 2013

By Andrew E. Harrod

Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), discussed the threat of Islamic child marriage facing Nigeria during two successive Washington, DC, briefings on July 25, 2013.  Stating that banishing this danger will require a “huge outcry” from women’s groups and others, Oritsejafor declared, “We need strong voices from this nation.”

Representing a claimed 80 million Nigerian Christians, Oritsejafor spoke along with his associates at the Rayburn House Office Building and the National Press Club (NPC).  At issue is a Nigerian constitutional amendment setting the age of consent for citizenship renunciation at 18, but simultaneously stating that any married female shall be considered of age.  Efforts in the Nigerian senate to eliminate the latter provision seemingly sanctioning child marriage failed due to the opposition of Senator Ahmed Yerima.

Thus Oritsejafor speculated that this law could give support to marrying even three-year olds, something that has caused intense controversy in Nigeria.  In addition to protests around the nation, activists have been tweeting and hash tagging #ChildNotBride.  An online petition against the amendment’s marriage provision has already garnered over 28,000 signatures.

A former governor of Zamfara state in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north instrumental in introducing sharia law into nine northern Nigerian states in 2000-2001, Yerima called opposition to the marriage provision un-Islamic.  Yerima is infamous in Nigeria for his 2010 marriage to the 14-year old daughter of his Egyptian driver, whom Yerima paid $100,000.  In order to comply with Islam’s limit of four wives for one husband, the then 49-year old Yerima at the time divorced his 17-old wife, married when she was 15.

Yerima’s case provoked outrage both in Nigeria and from the United States due to the lack of any prosecution under child trafficking laws.  Yet Yerima is not alone, as the Population Council (PC) has determined that “[i]n northern Nigeria, 45 percent of girls are married by age 15, and 73 percent are married by age 18.”  A 2005 PC Child Marriage Briefing on Nigeria cites this as one “of the highest rates of early marriage in the world.”

One 2007 PC study (The Experience of Married Adolescent Girls in Northern Nigeria) noted a Nigerian north-south marriage age differential.  The study’s North Central, North East, and North West regions reported median female marriage ages of 20.6, 16.8, and 15.8 years respectively while the South East, South South, and South West regions reported ages of 24.0+, 24.0+, and 23.8.  Indeed, according to the United Nations, the average age of marriage for girls in northern Nigeria’s Kebbi state is 11 years old, in comparison to a nationwide average of 17.

PC noted that the “vast majority of child marriages were arranged by families.”  Like Yerima’s case, these underage marriages often involve bride prices.  PC additionally noted that child bride spouses “were considerably older,” with husbands being an “average of 12 years older than their wives: or “18 years for those in polygynous marriages.”  These husbands accordingly “made the vast majority of decisions in the household.”

“Sexual debut,” PC observed, “was often unwanted and traumatic for these young brides.”  A 14-year old girl married at 13 recounted:

The first time I had sex with my husband, I felt serious pains and was bleeding. I had to tell my auntie and she gave me some medicine.  Then I told her that I will never allow him to do that to me again.  My auntie told me that if I stop after the first time, the wound will never heal.  At that time my husband was a stubborn man and anytime he came to have sex with me, I just started crying.  He would tell me that Allah is blessing and rewarding me so I should not be crying.

UNICEF, moreover, reports 10% of the world’s Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) victims in Nigeria, a condition resulting from the damage caused by penetration of immature female genitalia that leaves girls incontinent.  “It’s a mess,” the Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist Emmanuel Ogebe stated at Rayburn.  Ogebe added that Islamic child marriage “perpetuates a cycle of sickness, disease, and destruction,” as child brides are incapable of properly caring for their children who become “street urchins” and jihadist warriors.

The Nigerian national government passed in 2003 the Child’s Rights Act prohibiting, among other things, marriage below the age of 18.  Yet as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF, according to its original name of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) notes, Nigerian states “are expected to formally adopt and adapt the Act…because issues of child rights protection are on the residual list of the Nigerian Constitution.”  Thus states have “exclusive responsibility and jurisdiction to make laws relevant to their specific situations.”  To date, UNICEF notes that 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have not adopted the Child Rights Act, including 11 in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north.

Oritsejafor observed that Nigerian legislators were hesitant to object to the amendment’s marriage provision because the “whole world is sensitive about anything Muslim.”  Ogebe as well noted that it would be difficult for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to utilize his veto against an entire constitutional amendment merely because of one objectionable passage.  Whether a president could veto a constitutional amendment was also “very murky” under Nigerian law.

Oritsejafor appealed on behalf of Nigeria’s girls who “are just human beings” and recalled the American civil rights movement.  “Where are the heroes who marched for little girls killed in Selma, Alabama,” he asked at NPC, and the “new Dr. Kings.”  “We must rise as one and say no, never again.”

(Photo credit: Nestlé)

  1. Comment by wale Junaid on August 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I would have loved Oritsejafo to mention Christianity stand rather than UN,US or activists stands on any issue. Afteral Islam is a way of life of quite a large chunk of Nigerians and it has its ethics and standard ways which is universal,abi UN and US views are christian views

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