Nigeria: Three Nigerian Teenagers Are Fighting to End Child Marriage

Photo: Jessica Lea/Flickr
Child marriages remain a problem in across Africa.

In a campaign dubbed "Raise the Age", three Nigerian teenagers are fighting for the removal of a clause in Section 29 of the Nigerian constitution. The clause stipulates that "any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age", so facilitating underage marriage.

According to a 2018 UNICEF report, child marriage is most prevalent in West and Central Africa - in fact, Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic account for the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world.

The report states that, according to the latest prevalence and population figures, 12 million girls are married in childhood each year and 38% of young women in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18.

In Nigeria specifically, more than a third of girls end up in child marriages. With 22 million Nigerian girls married before the age of 18, that country has one of the highest number of child brides in Africa. Child marriage is particularly common among Nigeria's poorest, rural households and the Hausa ethnic group.

The drivers of child marriage in Nigeria include gender inequality, level of education, political and economic climbing and poverty. Close to 30% of women in their early 20s from low-income groups were married in their childhood, compared to 10% of girls from wealthy homes in Nigeria, according to the UNICEF 2018 report.

Although the Child Rights Act of Nigeria 2003 stipulates that children under the age of 18 cannot get married, a sub-section of the country's constitution tackling citizenship says, "Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.

It's Never Your Fault

It's Never Your Fault is a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of teenage friends: Susan Ubogu, 16, Kudirat Abiola, 15, and Temitayo Asuni, 15. The trio has started the #raisetheage movement in an attempt to raise the age of consent in all Nigerian states from 11 to 18 years old and to have the law enforced.

The campaign stipulates that the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria presents contradicting stances on the issue of child marriage. In the first instance, Section 23 of the 2003 Nigerian Child Right's Act 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." However, the contradiction that is Section 29(4b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says, "Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age."

As the petition stresses, "A child as young as 11 can be married off. This leads to innumerable complications, not only for the child but also for the economy as a whole."

It goes on to say, "Due to the fact that this law is not clearly stated, it implies that being 11, or even younger, and in a marriage allows the culprit to go scot free, making the small girl child suffer."

Hussaini Abdu, the director in Nigeria for Plan International, an organisation that promotes children's rights and has been active in Nigeria since 2014, told CNN that it is challenging to end child marriage in the absence of laws that forbid the practice. He said that girls are already marginalised in Nigeria and forcing them to marry at a young age further silences their voices.

"Disgracefully, in Nigeria, there is no minimum age of marriage. 43% of girls are married off before their 18th birthday, condemning them to a life they never wanted," he said. "The government of Nigeria must do more to combat this practice, to protect girls and to enable them to live their lives freely, as equals to boys and men."

In an interview with CNN, the girls who launched It's never Your Fault and #raisetheage explained that it is a very emotional issue for them. "How do you give a young girl such a responsibility and have her education, friends and family taken away from her?" Abiola, who aspires to be a children's rights activist, asked.

Ubogu, who taught herself to code at age 10 and already has a software company with two games in the Google Play store, laments for the young girls who are missing out on similar experiences, saying, "At the age of 11, most girls should be getting an education -- in the classroom, not the kitchen. Times are changing, and no one should think a woman's role is limited to the kitchen."

Asuni said she felt helpless until she met Ubogu and Abiola at a workshop organised by a local NGO to educate students about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

"As we got talking, we realised we needed to start with a change in our country's constitution," Asuni told CNN.

So began their petition, which is addressed to the Federal Government of Nigeria and has so far garnered more than 130 000 signatures. To further support the campaign the trio are also organising workshops on gender equality and partnering with Nigerian celebrities.

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