Child marriage customs, a situation whereby children are given into marriage well before they attain puberty occur all over the world particularly in Africa, Asia, and South America. Some of the causes of early marriage in Nigeria include conflict, poverty, religion, and tradition. This practice is extremely prevalent in some communities in the Northwest region of Nigeria. In this post, we take a look at the prevalence, causes, and effects of early marriage in Nigeria.
According to UNICEF in 2005, the term ‘early marriage’ refers to marriages (and informal unions) in which a girl lives with a partner as if married before age of 18.
Thus, early marriage and child marriage can be defined as marriage carried out below the age of 18 years, before the girl is physically, physiologically, and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing.
The Nigerian review draft decree put the marriageable age of the girl-child at 18 years. Furthermore, UNICEF recommends that children should not be separated from their parents before 18 years unless it is considered necessary.
Most early marriages are arranged and based on the consent of parents and often fail to ensure the best interests of the girl child. Early marriages often include some elements of force.
The lack of an overarching definition of early marriage in international conventions has generated some debate.
Indeed, a universal age of marriage is inappropriate, in part because societies have different understanding of what it means to be a child as well as different socio-economic and cultural realities.
Child marriage is the practice of marrying a young girl (generally defined as below the age of eighteen) to an adult. In most cases, it is always a young girl married to a matured man. It is a situation where female adolescents and teenagers are married to adult husbands. In these instances, sometimes, the men can be twice their ages and these females become child brides.
Early marriage in Nigeria is most prevalent in Northern Nigerian. Moreover, child marriage is predominantly practiced in the rural and poor communities where young girls are regarded as economic burden and quickly married off to alleviate household expenses.
The continuing economic hardship in Nigeria is encouraging a rise in early and child-marriage, as child marriage is often regarded as a family-building strategy, an economic strategy and the resulting transaction important for the financial and social survival of the child and her family.
In Nigeria, the practice of child marriage is deeply entrenched in tradition, culture and religion and the country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with estimated 42 percent of girls married before 18 years; and while this is found among many ethnic groups across the country, its predominance is clearly in the northern part of the country.
In the Eastern States of Nigeria, there also exists a law that fixed the minimum age for customary law marriages. Sixteen (16) years is the minimum age for marriage under this law. However, this law is ineffective and moribund as there is still some incidence of child marriage in various communities in Eastern Nigeria with its attendant evils particularly to the health of the girl-child who has been married off prematurely.
Hausa-Fulani of the Northwest and North-East (of which Zaria is a part) where 48 percent of girls are married by age 15, and 78 percent are married by age 18.
Among the Yorubas, in the South-West, child-marriages are no longer arranged and for the Igbo in the South-East, the practice has declined considerably and restricted to few communities and situations where pregnant teenagers are forcefully married off, to prevent family shame or restore honor.
Rural girls were more likely to marry early compared with urban girls. The timing of marriage among girls in the southern regions is later. Thus, rural girls were more likely to get married earlier than urban girls. It is quite glaring that there is higher incidence of child marriage in Northern Nigeria.
Early marriage is due to various factors including among others, the search for economic survival, protection of young girls, peer group and family pressure, controlling female behavior and sexuality, wars and civil conflicts and socio-cultural and religious values.
In many of these early marriages in Nigeria, the children are given to the men free for economic gains to the family or to build alliances for business or political benefits, particularly in the northern part of the country. It is also believed in most parts of northern Nigeria that a man can marry a child as young as the age of 9 as long as sexual relations with her is ‘postponed’ until she has attained puberty.
Indeed, several reasons have been given for the prevalence of early (child) marriages in Nigeria. Sometimes, it may depend upon socioeconomic factors. In some instances, they are used to secure and maintain political ties. Families cement financial and or political ties by having their children marry. The betrothal is considered a binding contract upon the families and the children. In such cases breaking the betrothal can have serious consequences for the families as well as for the betrothed individuals themselves.
Furthermore, in certain cultures, where daughters are considered a liability, poor people in the society willingly give out their daughters for marriage early.
Poverty, religion, tradition, and conflict also take the center stage of child marriages in Nigeria and other Sub- Saharan African countries.
Indeed several marriages are tired to poverty, with parents needing the bride price of a daughter so as to feed, clothe, educate, and provide for the rest of the family.
Gender inequality is one cause of early marriage in Nigeria. In most communities across Nigeria (particularly Northern Nigeria), women and girls often occupy the lower rug in the societies, consequently women and girls are denied their rights and ability to play an equal role like their male counterparts in the communities as well as and fulfill their ambition and potential.
Early (child) marriage in Nigeria denies girl-children of school age their right to the education for their personal development, preparation for adulthood and effective contribution to the future well-being of their family and society. Girl-child education lowers infant mortality, promotes health, improves nutrition, raises economic productivity, enhances political participation and prepares the ground for educating the next generation. Early (child) marriage in Nigeria relegates the girl-child to a vulnerable position and results in violations of the fundamental human rights of the girl-child. Child marriage in Nigeria undermines national development efforts towards achieving more educated, healthier and stable populations as it often involves the end of formal education, domestic violence, early sexual activity and child bearing associated with health complications for the girl child.
It is a violation of girl’s human rights as it deprives her from freedom, opportunity for personal development, and other rights. It also a developmental challenge for population pressure, health care costs and lost opportunities of human development. It is barrier to girl’s education as young girls drop out from school to get married which impacts negatively on the community as whole and on the wellbeing of future generation.
This practice stands in direct conflict with the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); such as the promotion of basic education, fight against poverty, the prevention of HIV/AIDS and reduction maternal mortality rate.
The consequences of such action has contributed immensely to the non-achievement of gender equality, absolute poverty and hunger reduction, universal basic education, and improved health and reduction in maternal and infant death, HIV/AIDS, etc. in Nigeria and other third world countries.
Early pregnancy makes girls more susceptible to the increased risk of dying, increased risk of premature labour, and higher chances that the newborn babies will not live. There are also the serious medical complications of Vesico-Vagina Fistula (VVF) and Rectum Vagina Fistula (RVF). It is pathetic that girls with such medical conditions are considered unclean and ostracized by society. In Nigeria, this condition affects 150,000 women.
Early marriage in Nigeria is a barrier to many girls’ formal education as they abandon the pursuit of education and begin to rear children immediately they enter into a husband’s house. Early (child) marriage in Nigeria is a violation of the fundamental human rights of women as many girls are forced into marriage against their freewill and consent. Early marriage in Nigeria is against international conventions mentioned earlier in this work, which placed the legal age of consent to marriage at 18 years. Early marriage in Nigeria results into poor sexual and reproductive health for child brides, as they are incapable of negotiating safe and protected sex with their partners who are much older than they are. It is important that, Nigeria endeavors to prosecute and hold culprits who have been found guilty to account and those who cover up for them if this country will completely eliminate or prevent gender crimes. Indeed child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights and a gender -based violence; especially as these young girls are married out to older men without their free and full consent.
From the foregoing we make the following recommendations:
There is the need to provide economic opportunities to the girl-child. Poverty is one of the major factors responsible for early marriage. Therefore, there is need to improve the access of young married and non-married girls to economic resources by expanding employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.
There is the need to promote education of girl child. Girl child formal education seems to be the ideal solution to tame early marriage of the girl child. There is need for government and NGOs to provide support needed for girls’ education including free books, uniforms, etc. Moreover, there is need to use mass media to increase the awareness of the people about the consequences of early marriage on girls themselves, their family and on the community as a whole. This will lead to the empowerment of girl child into skills for self-confidence, assertiveness, speaking out, decision- making and negotiation.
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