Nigerian States Should Protect Girls by Ending Child Marriage

24 September 2021
guest column

Over 10 million children are out of school in Nigeria and the global pandemic has only made it harder for young people to stay in school. There have been dire consequences for girls, who are at-risk of being married off.

In a recent report, the World Bank found that Covid-19 lockdowns have increased the probability that children won’t return school. That is particularly the case in North-Western Nigeria, which has a high rate of gender inequality in education, and the highest rates of child marriage in the country. Kidnapping of school children is a major ongoing crisis in the region. State governments need to strengthen laws on child marriage and establish strong processes to keep children in school, to prevent an increased risk of girls being married off in the coming years.

There is a strong link between girls’ staying in school, educational outcomes, and eradicating child marriage. When girls are supported to stay in school, and complete secondary school, they are less likely to be forced into early marriages , are empowered to shape their life choices, and are more likely to access employment options that enable them to secure their financial futures.

Child marriage is a major impact of weak efforts to keep students in school. More than 50 percent of children who are out of school in Nigeria are girls, who are often burdened with household responsibilities, care-work and informal sector labour to support family members.

Nigeria has free and compulsory schooling from age 6 to 15. Many girls from limited income households between ages 16 and 18 drop out because they can’t pay the school fees. But many girls still within the free compulsory education bracket are pulled out of school to work or are forced into marriage. Kidnapping of students is the biggest ongoing crisis in Nigeria’s northwest and deterrent to school attendance. In 2018, UNICEF estimated that 22 million girls and women in Nigeria were married in childhood, about 40 percent of all child brides in the West and Central Africa region.

Nigeria’s federal government has enacted various laws to ensure children’s rights and protect their wellbeing and access to education. The 1994 Universal Basic Education programme sets the requirement for compulsory education up to age 15. There is also the 2003 Child Rights Act and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, which criminalizes harmful traditional practices, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Furthermore, Nigeria has ratified several international and African treaties that prohibit child marriage . For example, the Article 21 of the African Charter states that, "Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years".

However, child marriage and other harmful practices continue to plague girls, especially in communities where custom and religion make it acceptable. The incongruence between Nigeria’s statutory, customary and Islamic laws raises uncertainties in trying to apply existing protections and fosters an atmosphere in which women’s and girls’ rights are under threat. Some state laws actually expose children to violence such as early marriage.

The problem largely stems from the Nigerian constitution, which is inconsistent in protecting children’s rights. While it sets the age of majority at age 18, it also says that a married woman – regardless of her actual age - is considered to have reached age of majority. The Constitution also removes marriages performed based on customary and Islamic laws from the Federal government’s legal jurisdiction and leaves this solely to states to regulate.

So, while 26 states have adopted the Child Rights Act, which bars marriage for girls under 18, 10 northern states where child marriage is prevalent have yet to incorporate the act in state law. Lawmakers and religious leaders in these states, where Islamic law is commonly practiced, often cite Islam’s lack of age requirement for betrothal as justification for early marriage. Even in some northern states that have adopted the law, the section for age of majority has been omitted, ultimately weakening the act’s ability to adequately protect children from forced marriage.

Child marriage is a gender equality issue. Nigeria should invest in its girls and women to enhance their capability to make independent, fully informed and autonomous life decisions. Now more than ever, it is important for all states across the country to fully adopt and enforce the Child Rights Act, including special emphasis on protecting all girls, and promoting their access to education to tackle the scourge of child marriage.

Rita Nketiah is a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch

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