7 Wednesday, August 2013

Child marriage debated in Nigeria

A recent review of the Nigerian constitution has inadvertently sparked controversy over child marriage in the West African country.

The constitution allows Nigerians to renounce their citizenship if they’ve reached “full age,” defined as 18 or older. It further states “Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”

A committee tasked with reviewing the document recommended repealing the second provision, but Senator Ahmed Yerima insisted that would discriminate against Muslim women, who he said are considered adults at marriage no matter their age.

A family in Bagega, Zamfara State, Nigeria. Photo © Marcus Bleasdale / VII.
A family in Bagega, Zamfara State, Nigeria. Photo © Marcus Bleasdale / VII.

The resulting debate over Section 29(4)(b) has put the legality of child marriage squarely in the spotlight, with many claiming that leaving the clause in the country’s constitution legitimizes the practice even though Nigerian law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 (only 23 of its 36 states have adopted that law).

Yerima’s been here before, causing widespread controversy in 2010 when he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.

Egypt—where a new TV series tackles the issue of child marriage—would not sign off on the union, but the Nigerian senator managed to get it approved in his own country, where criticism has dogged him ever since.

A recent blog post by Girls Not Brides does a good job of explaining the issue, which is far from resolved.

On the victory front, UNICEF reports that its Child Protection Action Network (CPAN) is having success in curbing child marriage in Afghanistan. This article highlights the case of a 10-year-old girl who was scheduled to marry a 50-year-old man before local officials intervened.

It’s unlikely that the 10-year-old Afghan girl and the 13-year-old Egyptian ever knew each other. But the common denominator in their cases appears to be money.

Yerima reportedly paid his Egyptian driver $100,000 to marry the man’s daughter. In Afghanistan, the 10-year-old’s father, who was struggling to feed his children on $30/month, accepted $9,000 from a wealthy man in exchange for his daughter’s hand.

A local religious leader and member of CPAN who intervened on the 10-year-old’s behalf cited financial problems and misunderstandings about Islamic law as the leading causes of child marriage in his community.

“One of the main reasons for child marriage is poverty, and that forces parents to agree to early marriage,” explained Sultan Mohammad Yusufzai. “The second reason is low awareness amongst families about Islamic principles and human rights.”

Likely, those same issues had more than a little to do with Yerima’s wedding three years ago.

No matter the country, no matter the constitution, no matter the religion, girls ought not be bought and sold.

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