Nigeria must protect the Rights of Girls

Child marriage is a complex issue in Nigeria with deep-seated cultural, economic, and social roots. At age 5, Dorathy Etagwa, a native of Becheve in Obanliku local government area of Cross River state, became a money wife.  The community is known for its custom and tradition called the money marriage. The practice allows young girls to be sold for cash as low as ₦5,000, a yam tuber, or both. 

It is disturbing to see young girls forced into marriages almost two decades since Nigeria enacted the Child Rights Act. Child marriage is a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human rights, as it deprives girls of their childhood, education, and opportunities. Child marriages expose girls to higher risks of sexual and reproductive health problems, domestic violence, and poverty. Ending child marriage in Nigeria requires a comprehensive approach that involves legal reform, policy development, community engagement, and social and economic empowerment for girls.

By providing girls with access to education, they can learn skills to help them achieve economic independence and delay marriage until they are ready.

Nigeria has the world’s 11th-highest prevalence of child marriage and the 3rd-highest absolute number of women married or in a union before the age of 18. While 16 percent of girls in Nigeria are married before their 15th birthday, 43 percent are married before the age of 18. 

The government must look into a systems-level approach — that addresses structural inequalities — to fix the root causes perpetuating unequal outcomes for the girl child. Such structural inequalities include limited access to education, patriarchal norms, lack of legal protection, etc. The approach will transform policies, laws, services, and budgets that discriminate and put girls in situations of vulnerability or dependency. An example of such an approach is legal reform. 

While the Nigerian constitution has laws against Child marriage, the practice remains prevalent in the country. The federal and state governments need to enforce those laws adequately. The Child Rights Act, which became law in 2003, sets the age of marriage at 18 years old.  As of 2022, 32 out of 36 states have adopted the act. States including  Kebbi, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Jigawa, Zamfara, Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Borno, and Adamawa have adopted the act but fail to indicate the age a child can marry. People who defend child marriage sometimes use customary and religious to justify the practice. 

Additionally, the penalties for contravening the provisions of the Child Rights Act on child marriage are not potent enough to discourage the practice. It has led to men marrying girls as young as 12 years old. 

There is a need to review and address these loopholes in the Child Rights Act.  Nigeria can take a cue from Malawi. In 2015, Malawi amended its Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Act to increase the legal minimum age of marriage to 18 years for both girls and boys. The same law introduced penalties, up to imprisonment, for those who marry or facilitate child marriage. In addition, the law requires parents and guardians to ensure their children are not married before the age of 18.

Ending child marriage requires addressing the underlying gender inequalities that fuel the practice. Promoting the girl child’s education, empowering women and girls, and raising awareness about the harms of child marriage are good ways to go. Some Nigerian parents often force their girl child into marriage at a young age due to poverty and inadequate educational opportunities. 

According to a 2017 Global Education Monitoring report, 12 years of education for every girl would reduce child marriage globally by 64 percent. By providing girls with access to education, they can learn skills to help them achieve economic independence and delay marriage until they are ready. Child marriage is most common in countries where the girl-child has little access to education. 

Engaging communities and their leaders is another critical strategy to reduce child marriage in Nigeria. Such engagements could include raising awareness about the negative impacts of child marriage on girls’ health, education, and overall well-being. Community leaders, including traditional and religious leaders, can play a vital role by promoting messages discouraging child marriage. 

Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) organize community empowerment programs and training for traditional and religious leaders. TOTSAN, for instance, involve in such engagement in the Gambia, Ghana, Senegal, and some other countries. Their interactions discuss the links between religious values and human rights. As a result, many religious leaders are now supporting their communities to end violence against women and girls, including child marriage.  

Ending child marriage in Nigeria requires a concerted effort from relevant stakeholders such as the government, NGOs, religious leaders, and traditional rulers. It might take time, but the benefits of ending child marriage are enormous for girls, their families, and communities. Ending child marriage in Nigeria is crucial to achieving gender equality.

Adimula Oluwabukola is a writing fellow at African Liberty.