The story so far: Senator Ahmed Yerima, a Nigerian senator famous for marrying a 13-year-old Egyptian in 2010 blocked moves by the Nigerian Senate to amend the portion of the constitution that gives a nod to the idea of child marriages. This caused an uproar especially among online Nigeria. You can read more about it here. And here. Or just google the keywords ‘Nigeria child bride’. Below is an article written for publication in the newspapers.
This was meant to be an article articulating my perspective on the #ChildNotBride ‘movement’. It still is. However, this is also an explanation to those who said we did not understand the constitution or the clause in question; we were unaware of why we were signing a petition and were making fools of ourselves. This is for all of them.
Before I proceed, a little caveat: this is a straight forward piece written in simple English. There are too many people in Nigeria *‘blowing big big grammar’ on television, on the internet and in print (and see where we still are) I do not intend to join them. My point can best be illustrated using stories; I have three of them.
When I was in Secondary school, my parents enrolled me in extra lessons after school, as a lot of parents are wont to do. One day, during a Government class, the teacher was dictating his notes to us, all went well until he arrived at a paragraph that read, “Catholics and Christians around the world…”. He had hardly said these words before the class shouted in protest. Initially he thought the complaints were because he was dictating too fast. His pace slowed, the shouts were louder. He wanted to know what the problem was. We wanted to know why he was separating Catholics and Christians. He thought we were silly and we should wait for him to finish the sentence. “Catholics and Christians all over the world celebrate Easter.” The class went up in arms. We wanted to know what the difference was between Catholics and Christians, why the distinction? Then the teacher confirmed what we thought he thought by saying, “But Catholics aren’t Christians!”
There are several ways to give your assent to something without saying yes: you can be ambiguous, you can be ambivalent or you can be silent. My teacher’s attempt at ambiguity was stillborn as we forced him to express the opinion he obviously held. Section 29 (4) (b) of the Nigerian constitution is both ambiguous and ambivalent. The Nigerian constitution, however, is silent.
- (1) Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.
- (2) The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection (1) of this section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria.
- (3) The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if-(a) the declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or(b) in his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy.
- (4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section. (a) “full age” means the age of eighteen years and above;(b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.
We understand that that section refers to renunciation of citizenship but the simple question is why the need to include a clause about a married woman being of age if it is not (i) A tacit nod to marrying children under the age of 18 and, (ii) an indication of the prevalence or at least existence of child marriage? The other relevant question will be if it is neither, then what laws prevent people from giving out or marrying underage children? A friend referred me to the Child Rights Act of 2003, which has been passed in 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states, and gives the legal age for marriage as 18. I am all for pushing for this act to be passed in every state and enforcing it. But I believe that by being silent or retaining that troublesome clause, the Nigerian constitution allows for people to get off on a technicality if they fail to obey the Child Rights Act. And given the health, psychological, mental and developmental implications of child marriages this is not a loophole that should exist.
When I was 13/14 years old I was sexually abused by a relative, about four decades my senior. It was not rape, it was an evil, tactical, psychological and physical stealth. It took 14 more years before I was able to talk about it to anyone, and another 5 for me to allow a professional help me see how that singular act adversely affected too many of my life choices. Child marriage is nothing like sexual abuse. The child bride with no education, no resources, and no family to run to, lives with the source of her terror EVERYDAY. She has no blogs in which to purge her emotion, no opportunity to develop herself in different directions that empower her and help rebuild her self-esteem. For her, judgement is swift, harsh and permanent. And this is if she is lucky to escape the medical complications of early childbirth, especially VVF.
In April of 2010, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The thing about having a child is that you suddenly see everyone as someone’s child and you want to change the world for them. It is unfathomable to me that, six or so years from now, girls my daughter’s age will begin to be involved in discussions about husbands and marriage - and inevitably, sex. One of the things about this #ChildNotBride controversy is that it has opened the way for people to talk, to argue, to debate. A lot of the arguments are healthy but a few of them are not. The argument that the prevalence of girls as young as 10, 11 or 12 having sex, sometimes for money, and/or teenagers having several abortions and so on, justifies or necessitates early marriage is spurious, to say the least. The problem with that sort of thinking is that it draws a conclusion based on several false premises; that the only life choices available to girls are those that require the use of her body, and that every girl will go in that direction if not prevented early. Somewhere in there is also the inherent idea that girls (read: women) are inferior and not worthy of, or equipped for, the opportunity to aspire for higher goals through education. We, as a nation, can, literally, not afford to condone that kind of thinking, in this day and age.
This fight is not only about child marriage, it is about the belief that women are property, without aspirations beyond giving birth and domestic chores. It is about making valid attempts to move towards the country that we want – need- to be. It is about understanding the power we have as citizens and using that for our greater good.
I know what I am fighting for.
*blowing big big grammar = using complicated words