In 2020, where the world is taking steps and making advancements towards equality and empowering women and girls, Nigeria, stands with the largest number of child brides in West and Central Africa, at 22 million accounting for 40% of all child brides in the region. UNICEF estimates that the world has about 650 million females who were married under the age of 18 and Nigeria has the 11th highest prevalence of child marriage in the world, and the 3rd highest absolute number of women married or in a union before the age of 18 in the world at 3,742,000.
In Nigeria, at least 4 in every 10 girls, accounting for 43% of girls, are married before the age of 18. In Northern Nigeria, the rates can be as high as at least 7 in 10 girls, which accounts for 76%.
At a time where the nation is facing economic crises occasioned by the multiple problems of the Nigerian society and the peculiar COVID-19 pandemic year, attention is not likely to be drawn towards that seemingly insignificant member of the society, on whom a price is put by her family and the society to be given out, most times, for the financial liberation of her family. The member of the family, who becomes the first option for marriage in most cases when the family is in a financial crisis. The person, through whom, it is hoped that good fortune will come to the family after being married and yet in whom the family is willing to invest the least upon. The Nigerian Girl Child! The child, whom the Nigerian society does not readily see as a key factor to the long-lasting relief for the Nigerian economy.
While attention is being drawn to the international markets, exchange rates, commodity prices, inflation rates, and more, the girl child in some quarters of the society is being exchanged in the marriage market in an attempt to lessen the financial burden of her family or for other financial or political gains. A process in which the girl is mostly not in support but cannot speak up because she is meant not to have a voice. Child marriage in Nigeria is driven by a mix of factors including poverty, poor education, strong social and religious traditions, legislation, and more. How are these affecting Nigerian homes, the Nigerian economy, and Nigerian society?
Poverty: A Cause and Effect of Child Marriage
Many families have varied reasons why they give out their daughters for marriage. One of them which is a major factor is poverty. The calculation of some parents is that giving out the girls for early marriage will lessen the financial burden on them as parents and also help to secure the child’s future since she will be catered to by her husband. In Nigeria, child marriage is twice as likely to occur in rural areas and over three times more common among the poorest demographic. Africa’s most populous nation and the largest economy is unique in such a way that it is marked by a dichotomy of extremes. You have people living in either extreme wealth or those in abject poverty with a greater percentage of people in abject poverty. Therefore, poverty and underdevelopment have been identified as drivers of child marriage. And amongst the poor, more than 80% of young women marry in childhood, compared to 10 percent of their rich counterparts. This means that girls from poor families are 3 times more likely to become child brides than girls from the richest homes.
If parents give out their daughters with the calculations of escaping poverty in mind, how well then, is this paying off for the child, the parents, and the society as a whole? How successful has this attempt to use the girl child to lessen family and society poverty been? Who gains in this process and who losses in the process? How far have the fortunes of families been changed in the many years of giving out their daughters? Are parents learning from the experiences of others or just going along with the norm simply because it is culture or tradition or religion? Is the Nigerian government paying attention to this process and realizing the potential losses girl child marriage is costing the country?
In an interview with Click Naija, Hajiya Habiba Mohammed, the Director, Center for Girls Education, Zaria, Kaduna State, explains what some parents refer to as their reasons for giving out their daughters. She said that many parents do it to lessen the financial burden of the family and enjoy other benefits from the suitor who in turn blesses the family with gifts. This calculation, however, almost always, never turns out as planned. The projections of most families soon quickly turn negative when the reality of the marriage hits the couple. She said cases abound where husbands have had to return the brides to their parents’ houses either because the girl contracts a disease owing to complications from childbirth, or their inability to cater financially to the bride and their children. This becomes a vicious cycle of improved poverty where the poverty that should have ended with just the girl is doubled, or tripled with her and her children to cater to.
Hajiya Habiba gave the instance of a young girl who was given out for marriage and was later retired to her father’s house with 3 children increasing her financial burden and that of her parents. It becomes like the case of penny wise pound foolish or the case of robbing peter to pay paul. A father trying to lessen the financial burden of his family. But ends up incurring more financial burden by having more people to care for and more mouths to feed.
Two Child Bride Survivor Stories
Two Stories of girls who have been subjected to the experience of early marriage is only a testimonial to what other Nigerian girls in their situations have been through or are still going through.
Najatu Hamza is an 18-year-old girl, from Yakasai, Zaria Kaduna State, who was 13 years when she was married off to a man who already had other wives. Najatu shares her story on how she was mocked by the children of the other wives for taking their father’s attention away. Najatu said, while she played with her friends who were children like her, she would hear the other wives say she is not even mature. She gave birth to her first child at 15 and lost him to illness. She has had several miscarriages in the marriage and says it has not been an easy experience for her.
She has decided to pick up the pieces of her life and has been enrolled back in school. At 18, she is presently in junior secondary school 1 and hopes to become a teacher or a doctor after her schooling.
17-year-old Raiya Jamilu from Wuchichiri, Zaria Local Government Area, Kaduna State, who presently lives with her parents is a survivor of child marriage. Raiya was 12 years old when she was forced by her parents to get married to a young man who did not want to get married to her. This made her face a lot of difficulties in the marriage as the man she was married to didn’t like her at all. This led her to complain to her mother and the matter was taken to the Emir, who intervened in the situation and asked that she goes back to the parents’ home.
On getting home she discovered she was pregnant and was returned to her husband’s house by her mother. Raiya was returned back and forth from her parents to her husband’s house about four times before the marriage was finally annulled in court. One of the challenges Raiya faced while in the marriage was that, her husband hardly provided 3 square meals for her in a day. Sometimes her mother had to bring food for her to get some food to eat. She said she really suffered and was sick a lot of the time.
Raiya, has been divorced from her husband and is presently working on the farms to earn money to help herself and her son. She says her life would have been different if she has gone to school and was matured before getting married. She said she would have been happier and her parents would be happy too because she probably wouldn’t have to rely on her parents for financial assistance. However, though she presently stays with her parents, she is happier because she has already started working and is contributing to her parents’ upkeep. Raiya still hopes to get married again someday but also hopes to go back to school and start up a business.
Girl Child Marriage, Population and Labour Force Participation
Child marriage doesn’t just impact girls, it impacts the entire society especially economically. At the end of the day, the prosperity of everyone boils down to the economic sustainability of society. When half of the potential workforce in a country is unable to contribute to economic activity, society as a whole suffers. A 2017 World Bank study estimates that Nigeria could generate an additional $7.6 billion in earnings and productivity if it ends child marriage. This accounts for the largest monetary estimate of the annual economic cost of child marriage through lost earnings and productivity globally.
The relationship between child marriage and labor force participation is complex. Lower educational attainment among women who marry as children may reduce their likelihood of entering the labor market and adversely affect the type of jobs they engage in.
Another major fall out of early child marriage in Nigeria is that births increase and population explosion undermines the government’s ability to effectively plan and mobilize resources for sustainable development. Child marriage could lead to higher fertility associated which may influence women’s roles in the labor market and the number of hours they can work. Young women will have frequent interruptions to employment due to childbirth and the time burden of care responsibilities can also affect the types of jobs that women can engage in, forcing them into lower-paying jobs and more unstable work situations. Child marriage can also curb women’s businesses and limit their bargaining power on issues concerning their households, including, possibly with regards to, the decision to enter the labor force.
The Ambiguity of Legislation on Child Rights and Marriage in Nigeria
The Nigerian government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. It has also signed the African Union’s Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2003. The government has even gone further to incorporate both tools into domestic law by disseminating the Child’s Right Act in 2003. While this can be seen as a step in the right direction, the Child’s Right Act does not provide sufficient protection for victims of child marriage. The act is designed to safeguard children’s rights, protecting them from every form of abuse and inhumanity. This includes invalidating any marriage contract for persons under the age of 18 and prohibiting child betrothal by legal guardians or parents.
In Nigeria, structure and culture are intertwined, and the ambiguity of the Nigerian Constitution indirectly encourages the practice of child marriage. For instance, while the adoption of state religion is prohibited, the constitution allows states to make laws for peace and good governance. Nigeria’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural practices promote child marriage. Some of them are religious beliefs and others are traditions that can be regarded as working in opposite direction with the laws. The Child rights act of 2003 is seen as weak, stipulating a maximum punishment of five years imprisonment and a fine equivalent to about $1,400 in addition to the loss of custody of the child. More importantly, is the fact that the act is yet to be adopted or passed into law by each state in Nigeria. It is therefore not enough to have the act. For child marriage to be considered illegal in Nigeria, the state need to adopt this act as, presently in Nigeria, children remain in the legislative preserve of states.
Empowering Girls and Ending Child Marriage
Child marriage is a social illness that needs to ‘eradicated’ just as major diseases that threaten the existence of societies and communities. If girls stay in school and out of marriage they can learn the skills to join the workforce and lift themselves out of poverty until a time when they feel prepared enough and empowered to make the decision of marriage. Economic empowerment will not only increase their individual income, it will have ripple effects for their children, families, communities, and the country.
The nation is paying a higher price for marrying out its girls, like Najatu and Raiya, early than it probably realizes or bargained for. The desire to reduce poverty, through the early marriage of the girl child, is inadvertently increasing the poverty of the girl, her family, and the entire Nigerian society. Therefore, empowering girls is key to ending child marriage, and ending child marriage is key to financial prosperity for the nation.
This story/research/investigation was supported by the US embassy via the ATUPA fellowship by Civic Hive.
Story: Ehizogie Ohiani
Photo Credit: Center for Girls Education, Zaria Kaduna State, Nigeria