On a cold night Saturday night in April, Halima was told by her mother her suitor has come to ask for her hand in marriage next week. The 13-year-old stares at her mother in confusion as she could not understand what it means. “You don’t look happy,” observes her mother. “Mama, what do you want me to say? I don’t know,” she exclaims. “You are going to get married next week that is what it means. Your husband has promised to give us plenty money for your dowry. That means your father can buy new cattle and expand his farm. It also means i can have a change of cloth for the first time and feel proud at our women’s meeting. Halima, it is a new dawn for us, you have to be happy you are getting married to a rich man.”
Halima is one of the many girls in northern Nigeria who are victims of early marriages. For many millions of young people, adolescence is now a critical passage in which they gain life experience through schooling, job training, work experiences, community activities, youth groups and relationships. A majority also have their first sexual experiences during the adolescent years. But for some others, adolescence is stage they do not look forward to as they are given away in marriage to men of their father’s age or older than their fathers.
A recent case in Nigeria involved Ahmed Yerima, a senator in Nigeria and former governor of Zamfara state. Yerima is reported to have gotten married to a 13-year-old Egyptian girl in Abuja in April for a bride price of $100, 000. The senator is also said to have earlier married a 13-year-old who is now 14 and half, whom he divorced to make way for the new bride from Egypt. The case has generated a lot furore both within and outside Nigeria and the Egyptian government has expressed anger at the incident as Child Right Act is highly effective in the country.
Iheoma Idudu, executive director, Alliance for Africa observes that early marriage is still prevalent in Nigeria because it is largely a monetised society where the right of the child is sold for a juicy bride price. “Adolescence is a critical stage in a child’s life when he or she learns the social and gender norms that prevail in his or her communities; some protect a child’s health and rights, and some do not. These norms confront girls with special challenges—including restrictions on their independence and mobility, inequality in educational and employment opportunities, pressure to marry and start bearing children at an early age, and unequal power relations that limit their control over their sexual and reproductive lives,” she explains.
In addition, Idudu observes that throughout much of the world, families and societies treat girls and boys unequally, with girls disproportionately facing privation, lack of opportunity and lower levels of investment in their health, nutrition and education. “Gender-based discrimination continues in adolescence and is often a constant feature of adulthood. Prevailing gender norms also stymie adolescent girls’ access to schooling and employment opportunities. Institutionalized legal inequality underpins laws that keep land, money and other economic resources out of girls’ and women’s hands, closing off avenues for redress of discrimination and creating the conditions for gender-based violence and exploitation,” she says.
By: ANNE AGABJE