Last week, I attended what was possibly the most important high-level meeting for me as an ICWA Fellow in Nigeria. The Federal Government of Nigeria, on Tuesday, November 29, committed to end a deeply-rooted cultural and social menace in the country — child marriage. “Our stand is clear. No child marriage,” declared the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo as Nigeria joined 15 other African countries in the fight against child brides. In June 2015, African leaders made a resolution to end child marriage in the continent during the 25th African Union (AU) Meeting with Heads of States held in South Africa. Since then, governments have been charged with developing strategies and action plans aimed at eliminating the practice. Child marriage (also referred to as defilement) is defined as any union (formal or informal) where either party is below the age of 18. In Nigeria, the practice is most common in the Muslim-dominated Northern part of the country where 65% of children are married before their 18th birthday. Contrary to popular belief, and as one Islamic leader clarified, child
marriage is not a religious practice. It is a traditional practice; one that violates the message of the Koran which grants rights to women and girls. Despite laws in the country that protect the rights of children, child marriage continues to persist due to dichotomies between culture and law and lack of policy implementation structures. To address this issue, a national campaign has been launched with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Canadian government, UNICEF and other non-profit organizations. The campaign will be implemented through the office of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. A National Strategy to End Child Marriage in Nigeria 2016-2021 has been published and a Technical Working Group comprised of 30 members from national non-profits and civil society organizations has been established to institutionalize the campaign, create a holistic strategy, and build awareness on child marriage. While this is a step in the right direction, it is going to be a tough battle to uproot the century-old cultural beliefs and norms that promote child marriage. Another hurdle will be addressing and/or reprimanding Nigerian political and traditional leaders who have married child brides.
The practice of child marriage has brought a lot of misery to many girls and women in Nigeria. At the launch event, adolescent victims of child marriage shared their personal testimonies. One girl stated that she was married off at the age of nine while she was in Primary 3 and had not even commenced menstruation. She eventually got pregnant for her husband, was in labor for three days after which the baby was brought out dead. She got infected in the process due to complications and developed obstetric fistula. In this condition, her husband divorced her and sent her back to live with her mother.
Ending child marriage will open doors of opportunities and progress for girls across the country who have been denied their childhood, access to education, and a productive life. As one speaker noted, “today is a day of joy for every girl in Nigeria.” The goal of the campaign is to reduce child marriage by 40% by 2021, with a vision of zero child marriage in Nigeria by 2030. Now, the world watches to see how Nigeria will keep its commitment to girls.