• Thursday, February 29, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Girls not Brides

mother-daughter

Failure to act means more than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020.

I got a call from the award winning movie Producer/Director Stephanie Linus about two years ago for a stint in the award movie DRY which was released on August 14, 2015. Though a stint but I must say I am glad I was part of the movement. The movie follows a trail of Zara’s (played by Stephanie Linus) trip to Africa, her constant turmoil as a result of inexplicable horrors from her childhood, her experiences and heartaches while working with young girls suffering from complications from early child birth as child brides, against the backdrop of a rich African culture.

Back in Africa, thirteen- year old Halima’s poor parents make her marry Sani, a 60 year old man. With no idea of sex or its intricacies, she goes through a dreadful ordeal as her new husband repeatedly rapes her. Pregnant and after the delivery of her child, young Halima suffers a condition known as Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF). A health nightmare suffered by over 800,000 other women just like her, she is ostracize and abandoned by her husband, family and community. It is a period of rejection, isolation and despair for Halima.

“Dry journeys into heart-wrenching details of a culture not too many films dare to explore. The issue might seem controversial, but if it will set one girl free and open the minds of the people, and encourage us all to take action, then the movie would have served its purpose” says Stephanie Linus.

Another epic award winning movie is Wives on Strike which premiered in Nigeria this year and produced by the award winning Omoni Oboli. It is a about a group of market women who decided to take matters into their own hands to stop the marrying off of a mutual friend’s thirteen year old daughter to a much older man by withholding sex from their husbands in a bid to stir them into standing up for the young girl and this movement turns out to be a war against child marriage on a political level.

What do these two stories have in common? Child Marriage!

Child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age. According to UNICEF, Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected. Child marriage is widespread and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation.

Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 28 girls every minute.

1 every 2 seconds. Worldwide, more than 700 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday, Seventeen percent of them, or 125 million, live in Africa, more than one in three of these women and girls (over 40 million) entered into marriage or union before age 15. UNICEF recent report states.

The report further states that girls in rural areas are twice as likely to become child brides as girls from urban areas. Similarly, girls from the poorest households are twice as likely to marry before age 18 as girls from the richest households. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, even a doubling of the rate of reduction would not be enough to reduce the number of child brides. Shockingly, from this report, Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa, with 23 million girls and women who were married in childhood.

“Child marriage happens because adults believe they have the right to impose marriage upon a child. This denies children, particularly girls, their dignity and the opportunity to make choices that are central to their lives, such as when and whom to marry or when to have children. Choices define us and allow us to realize our potential. Child marriage robs girls of this chance.” says Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel.

Various factors have been listed to be the cause of early marriage and they include gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men, poverty, lack of education, cultural practices and beliefs to mention a few.

Going from this statistics, it therefore means that if nothing is done to stop this act, more than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020.

In Nigeria, 43% of girls are married off before their 18th birthday. 17% are married before they turn 15 and this differs from state to state. In the NorthWest region, the figure is 76% while in the SouthEast region, it is put at 10% .

According to Femi Olaleye, the Medical Director, Optimal Cancer Care Foundation, “ A young bride in her early teens clearly has not fully developed anatomically to cope with sexual intercourse with a fully developed adult male. So, a young girl having sex is expected to have painful intercourse, lacerations and bruises and at times bleeding after the act from the cuts and bruises. The United Nations has warned that early child marriage can cause an increase in cases of Vesico-Vaginal fistula (VVF), which is commonly caused by badly-managed labour, thereby leading to obstructed labor, which later becomes complicated with uncontrollable leaking of urine through the vagina.”

In May 2015, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act was adopted to address the issue of female genital mutilation/cutting and other harmful traditional practices such as child marriage.

At the end of 2015, a Technical Working Group on Ending Child Marriage was birthed and it was led by the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. The group included over 30 members including civil society organisations.

The vision of the group was to develop and implement a holistic multi-sectoral strategy for ending child marriage in Nigeria, as well as raising awareness, encouraging behaviour change, and ensuring the monitoring and evaluation of laws and policies.

As laudable as the vision is, it has its challenges in terms of execution since Section 29(4) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria technically approves child marriage.

“For all its flaws, the Child Rights Bill is the only document that puts together all the rights of the child, aimed at protecting the rights of children in Nigeria in terms of the present dangers and challenges in Nigeria’s policy space. For the Senate to include section 29 4 (b) of the 1999 Constitution in the amended constitution is to insult the sensibility of Nigerians by stylishly encouraging child marriage under religious sentiment”. says Joe Okei-Odumakin, Executive Director, Women Arise.

According to Folake Ajayi, Chairperson Oyo State Chapter of the Federation of Female Lawyers (FIDA), “although some states have domesticated the Child Rights Act, 2003, many girls still face early marriage, genital mutilation and rape, among other challenges. It is depressing that Section 29(4) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria technically approves child marriage. This is by its provision that any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age. Child betrothal and marriage occur when a girl-child is betrothed and married off.”

She further adds that “Sections 23 and 24 of the Oyo State Child Rights Law, 2006, prohibited child marriage and betrothal. Under the Child Rights Law, a child is said to be a person under the age of 18. Section 23 of the same law says a person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage. If such a marriage does take place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect. The rights of the girl-child in Nigeria are at a higher risk of being breached.” Folake concludes.

In recent development, The Federal Government put together a technical working group comprising of all the stakeholders to bring up guidelines that will put an end to child marriage in Nigeria. Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Senator Aisha Jummai Alhassan revealed this.

According to the National Population Commission (NPC) Chairman, Eze Duruiheoma “Without education, in poor health, and with little or no control over her body, the future of the teenage girl in Nigeria imperilled, and her potential may never be realized. Nigeria’s teenage population aged 13-19 was 20, 458,601 or 14.6% of the total population out of which the teenage girls constituted 10,001,965 or 7.2% of the total population. By 2016, the population of the teenage girl increased to 13,787,755.”

For Eze, “Access of the teenage girls to reproductive health services and information is severely limited thereby aggravating cases of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortion, sexually transmitted disease, STD, including HIV. No nation can lay claim to development until its teenagers have equal rights and opportunities to lead a healthy life and free from culturally induced attitudes and negative practices that limit their capacities to make meaningful contributions to national development.”

Aisha concurs with Eze saying “We know that history of early marriage is violent against girl child because it is depriving children their right to aspire high, the right to develop, the right to contribute effectively to the nation building.”

 

BY: KEMI AJUMOBI