Dump child marriage and associated ills
A recent World Bank report titled “Deliver the future: Catalysing opportunities for women, children and adolescents” reveals that across the world, over 12 million girls have their education truncated annually due to early marriage. In particular, the report also stated that 250 million women and girls in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy are not using contraceptives, which it attributes to lack of access or lack of support. Nigeria is a key player in the group of countries guilty of the unwholesome practice of girl-child marriage; and obviously, Nigerian girls are endangered!
The impact of lack of access to sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) jeopardizes future growth and efforts to build more resilience and prosperity; and may account for the argument that 800 women will die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
Child marriage means any marriage that takes place before age 18; but for many girls, marriage occurs much earlier. In some countries, girls as young as seven or eight are forced by their families to marry much older men. While child marriage occurs in every region of the world, and is practised across cultures, religions, and ethnicities; the highest rates of child marriage by country are observed in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries such as Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria. This is unacceptable, because under sections 21-23 of the Child’s Right Act, 2003, child marriage is prohibited in Nigeria.
Section 21 states that ‘‘No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.’’ While Section 22(1) states that ‘‘no parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person;’’ and Section 23(d), says that ‘‘a person who betroths a child, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000; or imprisonment of a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.’’
Generally, girls married off early, face immediate and lifelong consequences ranging from sexual exploitation, violence, abuse, discrimination and harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting and food taboos. They lose their childhood, are robbed of childhood education and their future is endangered. These girls arrive at marriage with bodies inadequately developed for pregnancy because of food taboos that may have resulted in stunting with implications for the size of the pelvis; early/unplanned pregnancy, which in turn makes child-bearing hazardous, some resulting in increased risk of obstructed labour leading to vesico vaginal fistula (VVF) and maternal mortality.
In addition, child brides are often unable to negotiate safer sexual practices and are therefore at a higher risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The practice of child marriage can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their mental health and well-being.
Again, the negative consequences of child marriage go beyond the girls themselves. Available evidence suggests that children of child brides are 60 per cent more likely to die in the first year of life than those born to mothers older than 19, and families of child brides are more likely to be poor and unhealthy.
Thus, the alarming rate of girl-child marriage poses huge health danger to the children; and will reverse gains achieved in recent campaigns against child marriage. This is in contrast to the perception of parents that they are socially and economically protecting their young daughters through early marriage. Quite contrary, the practice actually exposes girls to increased health problems and violence, denies them access to social networks and support systems, and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and gender inequality.
What is responsible for girl-child marriage? Apart from unwholesome traditional and religious dogma, armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, kidnappings, natural disasters, displacements, COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, are threats to the lives of millions of girls and as they are being pushed into the basket of deprivation. These, according to State of Nigerian Girls Report include reduced access to education, nutrition, lack of protection and lack of access to basic social services.
Specifically, on COVID-19, school closures, economic stress, poverty, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic, isolation from friends and support networks are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage. Furthermore, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return, while job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters to ease financial burdens.
Although Nigeria adopted the Child’s Rights Act in 2003, giving legal consent to both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the law does not automatically become applicable in all of its 36 states and has to be domesticated. So far, only the Federal Capital Territory and 34 of the states have localised the Act, while two states in northern Nigeria have shunned it. Children in those states still suffer female genital mutilation. Largely, this situation has been attributed to religious and cultural practices which the states are unwilling or reluctant to change.
It may be shallow to attribute not sending girls to school because of religious and cultural practices because even in Islamic countries the literacy level is high with Oman having 95.58%; Saudi Arabia, 95.33% and Qatar, 93.46%. Given also that child marriage directly hinders the accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set development priorities for the world, there is need for urgent action to halt the losses in education, health and future to which the affected girls are exposed.
Ending child marriage is the right and smart thing to do. Girls in Nigeria and elsewhere deserve to live full childhoods, go to school, be free of the violence and negative health consequences associated with child marriage, and choose for themselves and without violence or coercion when and whom they marry.
So, government at all levels need to reinvigorate their relevant agencies to methodically avoid problems associated with child marriage. In particular, states that are yet to domesticate the Child Rights Act should do so now or forever bury their heads in shame. “The time to act in concert and deliver the future is now!”
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