Not many people would have thought a time would come when paedophilia would be celebrated in Nigeria. But that seems to be the case with the Senate’s much-touted bid to legalise child marriage.
Senator Ahmed Yerima
Specifically, the Senate voted in support of a resolution to amend the provisions of Section 29 (4b) of the 1999 Constitution. Section 29 (1) states: “Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.”
Subsection (4a) states: “Full age means the age of 18 years and above,” while (4b) says: “Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” But with the proposed amendment, a married underage girl of 10, 12, 13 or less is deemed to be an adult.
Despite the Senate’s plans to expunge the section which makes a married woman an adult, the proposal did not sail through because proponents could not get the 2/3 majority vote required.
“We wanted to remove it but failed. We were a total of 101, 85 voted and about six or so abstained There was hardly any dissenting vote, but it got mixed up with so many issues and didn’t get the required 73 votes anymore,” said Senate President David Mark.
That situation was, however, shortlived. At the intervention of some powerful Northern senators, with Senator Sani Yerima as the arrowhead, things changed. Yerima, former governor of Zamfara State, is alleged to have married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.
“Yerima brought religious sentiments to the Senate, misled the Senate, intimidated everyone for the northern senators of Islamic faith to have their way. I was in Kano and Katsina and saw girls in hospital with Vestico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) abandoned with stench and their lives at stake, due to early pregnancy,” said Mustapha Mohammed, a political analyst on radio.
Senator Yerima had argued against Subsection 4a of the 1999 Constitution because the Islamic law permits marriage to girls below 18 years. Under the said law, underaged married girls are adults by virtue of marriage.
Some days after, it dawned on one of the Senators who voted for the resolution, Ayo Akinyelure, that he had been misled. The senator claimed he thought he was voting against child marriage, and wept while explaining his predicament to his constituents at a Town Hall meeting in Akure, Ondo State.
His words: “I can never support such a barbaric and wicked bill. I am sorry for this costly mistake. I actually voted in error. I can never support a bill which is not only retrogressive in nature but will also subject the girl child to pain and anguish.”
While the global and national quest for girl child education gathers momentum, the Senate seems to be throwing a spanner in the works by passing a resolution that could stultify women empowerment.
Indeed, many feel the country will be in peril if the practice of taking underaged girls as wives gains ground. After all, many of the female ministers gracing the President’s cabinet would not have assumed such lofty positions if they had been given out in marriage as early as 12 or 13 years old.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, when asked on a radio programme about the Girl Child Marriage Bill, seemed to be against it.
“I am a woman and totally support empowerment of women. Letting girls go to school is good for the family. Health improves, education improves. There is no sentiment about this. Research studies have shown that to educate girls is the best way out of poverty,” she asserted.
Meanwhile, the Child Rights Act 2003 which defines a child as “anyone who is below the age of 18 years,” also guarantees universal free education to every child, including girls. The law stipulates five years’ imprisonment for any person who marries a girl under 18 years and prohibits child labour.
In the same vein, Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child, to which Nigeria is signatory, defines a child as “every human being (male or female) below the age of 18 years” and stipulates that the education of the child shall be directed to:
*The development of the child’s personality, talents, mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.
*The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.
Similarly, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child stipulates in Article 11 that (1) Every child shall have the right to education.
It recommends the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, tolerance, mutual respect, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, tribal and religious groups.
At a World Conference on Women held in China (Beijing), it was determined that equality of access to and attainment of educational qualifications are necessary if more women are to become agents of change. The literacy of women is key to improving health, nutrition and education in the family and empowering them to participate in societal decision-making.
All of that notwithstanding, discrimination against girls regarding access to education persists in many countries including Nigeria, owing to customary attitudes, early marriages/pregnancies, sexual harassment and inadequate schooling facilities.