CHILD marriage is climbing to a frightening level with the recent alarm over the betrothal of underage girls in Yobe State to older men by their families for pecuniary benefits. Members of the Children’s Parliament made the distressing disclosure in Abuja at a media roundtable organised by Save the Children International to commemorate this year’s International Day of the Girl-Child. With Nigeria among countries with the highest number of child marriages along with its attendant negative health and social implications, all stakeholders should take concerted action to stamp it out.
In its 10th year, the theme for the 2022 edition was ‘Our time is now—our rights, our future,’ with the UN calling on all countries to stand for the girls, and invest in a future believing in their agency, leadership, and potential.
Child marriages should be discouraged without further delay. Instead, policies should be geared towards ensuring a promising future for the girl-child, enabling her to pursue her lofty dreams and actualise her potential. Sadly, Nigeria holds the pathetic record of the country with largest child-brides in Africa, with about 23 million girls and women married as children, UNICEF says.
Globally, 650 million girls and women alive today were married off at childhood, with about half of the cases happening in Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and Nigeria. Diverse forms of abuse and unsafe traditional practices are heaped on the girl-child in Nigeria. Rape, domestic violence, denial of education and gender discrimination are common.
A 2017 report by the Pew Research Center named Nigeria with 3.3 million, as having the third largest number of child marriages after India and Bangladesh. In 2020, Statista recorded 3.74 million child marriages in the country, indicating a rise despite NGO sensitisation activities. Although Nigeria’s 18.43 per cent prevalence (percentage in relation to total population),is much lower than in Niger Republic, whose 75 per cent prevalence is the world’s highest, or Chad, Bangladesh, and Guinea with between 63 and 68 per cent prevalence, its toll in absolute figures is very concerning.
The federal and state governments need to redouble efforts to elevate the girl-child by removing obstacles limiting their aspirations, growth and potential and pursue enunciated policies with renewed vigour.
Though Nigeria passed the Child Rights Act in 2003 to stimulate policies in favour of children and the girl-child especially, only 31 states have domesticated the law. All the five laggard states are in the North, where child marriage and female illiteracy are highest. While female literacy in the three southern geopolitical zones averaged 79 per cent in 2018, according to Statista, female literacy in the North-Central was 49.6 per cent, 31.8 per cent in the North-East, and 29 per cent in the North-West. The northern states collectively account for over 75 per cent of the country’s out-of-school children, among other limiters of human development indices.
Clearly then, the northern states should be the main centre of action to put girls in school and abolish child marriage. Many of the 31 states merely domesticated the Act but are not enforcing its provisions. A former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who later became Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, once declared, “It is not a mere a coincidence that this (the North) is where you have the highest levels of illiteracy, early marriage, divorce and the highest level of domestic violence.”
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Educating the girl-child creates a healthier nation, which translates into stronger bonds in families. UNICEF notes that investing in girls’ education changes communities, countries, and the world, adding that educated girls are less likely to marry young and more likely to lead healthy, productive lives.
Education, it adds, empowers girls to earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families. “Girls’ education strengthens economies and reduces inequality. It contributes to more stable, resilient societies,” UNICEF adds.
The disadvantages of child marriage are diverse and distressing. It impedes childhood, hinders victims’ rights and exposes them to innumerable diseases, including obstetric fistula, cervical cancer, premature births and deaths, and the risk of maternal mortality.
The worsening insecurity in the North also continues to exacerbate the plight of the girl-child. UNICEF reported that about 2,295 school teachers were killed between 2009 and 2020 in the conflict ravaging the North-East states. Among the challenges is the abduction of teachers and pupils, which has disrupted education in Zamfara, Katsina, Niger, Sokoto, Bauchi, Kaduna, Plateau and Kebbi states. Some mass abductions included the April 2014 kidnap of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, 300 pupils abducted in Damasak (both Borno State); 140 students in Chikun, Kaduna State, 102 pupils in Yauri, Kebbi State, 110 pupils in Dapchi, Yobe State; 344 pupils in Kankara, Katsina State, and 276 pupils in Jangebe, Zamfara State.
Recent data by UNESCO in partnership with the Global Education and Monitoring Report state that Nigeria’s out-of-school youth population has risen to 20.2 million of the 244 million children and youths between the ages of six and 18 worldwide still out of school. Nigeria thus has the second highest untaught children after India; Pakistan has the third highest.
Political and religious leaders in the region should join forces to criminalise child marriage to fully secure the future of the girl-child; empower her to be at par with her peers in other countries, and compete favourably at various levels. Misplaced or twisted religious, cultural, and social beliefs promoting underage marriage must be eschewed to create a healthy milieu for the girl-child to flourish. Many countries regarded as “most conservative” educate their girls: female literacy rate in Saudi Arabia stands at 99.5 per cent; 79.9 per cent in Iraq; 97.93 per cent in Iran; 94.21 per cent in Qatar, and 95.76 per cent in the United Arab Emirates.
In Bangladesh, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 seeks stronger law enforcement and stringent punishment against underage marriage contractors. The law’s intent shows a country prepared to reverse an anomaly; Nigeria too should end the wickedness masked as child marriage. ,
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