Early Marriage? By Zainab Shinkafi-Bagudu

on   /   in News 8:32 pm   /   Comments

Here is one of the most informed articles since the debate on child marriage broke. It is a trending post on Nasir El-Rufai’s Facebook wall.

A virus is a small infectious agent replicates only inside the living cells.Viruses infect all types of organisms, from animals and plants to bacteria. Since 1892 when Dmitri Ivanovsky described a non-bacterial pathogen infecting tobacco, about 5,000 viruses have been described in detail. They can be found in every ecosystem on Earth and are the most abundant type of biological entity.

Of late, virus have found a heavenly host in the Nigerian social media network.

In minutes,a concept can go viral,permeating every corner of the world.This trend can be greatly beneficial, but also deadly dangerous. On this particular occasion I find it dangerous. In the last 48hrs, there has been an outcry on social media about a bill in the Nigerian Senate to legalise child marriage. The bone of contention simply ‘ Instead, they gave a legislative seal of approval for the marriage of underage girls. That means even a 5 year old toddler could be married off by her parents’ Purported to be pushed by Senator Yerima Ahmed Sani,the former governor of Zamfara state,the institutor of sharia law and admittedly a colourful and controversial figure.

There is no reference to where this legislative seal lies. Which section, of which constitution. All that is going round is an advocacy outcry and anti-child marriage logos. If this rage against the so called amendment legalising child marriage is to remind us of Yerima’s marriage to an Egyptian girl a few years ago, then let us clearly say so. Again if the aim is to create awareness against child marriage, then kudos again but let us be clear. But to mix up the two issues is mischievous and unnecessary.

Unfortunately it seems as a nation we delight in criticizing actions taken by leadership blindly,without objective use of glaring facts. The debate on the constitutional amendment was televised nationally. The Senate sittings are documented daily. The votes and proceedings  is a legal document produced and made available to the public. Unlike the British constitution that is unwritten, ours is written clearly and available to be bought on most street corners. So anyone that can read the English Language can access and analyze what and what happened. Instead, majority of us are just copying, pasting and broadcasting a misleading and inciting message.

What is upsetting to me personally now is that this ‘us’ that are spreading ‘the stop the child marriage’ message can read. We graduated from the best primary schools and obtained degrees from an era when universities didn’t go on endless strikes.

Yerima-Sani

So ‘WE’ have no right to be spreading messages without at the very least, verifying what the true situation is. I have received at least 10 of the messages directed against the Nigerian Senate and Ahmed Sani in particular. I am certain that all of these 10 people can read, possess TVs and internet subscriptions that enable them to access past events, and most of all, do not have up to six degrees of separation from the legislators that can easily explain what the issue is. The danger of this is obvious. We are living in divisive times when suddenly every Nigerian is acutely aware of being muslim or christian,being Urhobo or Kanuri. Feelings that certainly didn’t exist in my formative years but are glaring in my twilight ones.

The issue is one split in two. Chapter 3 covers citizenship of Nigeria. Chapter 3 clause 26 relates to attaining whilst Chapter 3 clause29 relates to renouncing Nigerian citizenship.

As it is, the law allows foreign wives to obtain Nigerian citizenship via marriage; Chapter 3clause(26)(a). Conversely, if a Nigerian woman marries a foreign man, he does not automatically get the right to apply for Nigerian citizenship. That gender discrimination was considered in the ongoing review by the current lawmakers. The votes and proceedings paper of Tuesday 16th July 2013 show the senators voted to replace the word woman for person. A less discriminatory word and giving Nigerian women the power to grant her husband citizenship of her country also.

The second issue and probably the more pertinent one is the Renouncement of Nigerian citizenship. This is what is being erroneously broadcast. Chapter 3 Section 29(1) of the Nigerian constitution states that to renounce citizenship, one must be of full age. Subsection 4 goes further to define full age as a) 18yrs and above and b) woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.

The 2013 review sought to remove the second qualifier. That is a married woman. On the surface, it didn’t seem to make sense to differentiate in that manner as in the earlier section 26. Not until Senator Ahmed Sani pointed out the historic reason for this.

Whilst 18years is generally accepted as the age of maturity in most cultures Islamic law is not as clearly stated. Maturity in Islam is measured in various ways. One of which is marriage. Thus a married woman, (and NOT a 5year old) is deemed mature enough to make a decision to renounce her citizenship of Nigeria. Furthermore, in 1979,the lawmakers led by late Aminu Kano of PRP felt the age 18 years used was an arbitrary western concept of maturity. The legislators in 1979 at the time agreed to the PRP argument and it was included.

Even in the west, standards are adjusted to suit the welfare of all citizens. In the USA for instance, a 14year old that gets pregnant and has a child is eligible to social benefits,including housing, even though she cannot vote. So in her welfare,she is treated as an adult and provided safe home for herself and her child.

Last week, when Senator Ahmed Sani pointed out the same reason and sought not to remove the married woman clause. The senators voted 60 ayes to 35nos and thus the constitution will remain as it is assuming the bill that will eventually be brought from this is passed. A minimum of 72(one third) votes are required for any amendment to pass. The nays and abstains do not matter. This amendment had 60,and thus failed.

Both times, relating to section 26 and 29, the lawmakers voted in a manner that carried along gender and religion; a reflection of why each of us has a senator representing our interests. Nothing in the proceedings indicate age of marriage or how a legislative seal was given to child or even adult marriage as is being circulated in the messages going around.

Because I have mentioned Islamic law and maturity, I will mention one more point. I mention it to balance,not to start a religious debate. What is the age of competence for marriage? I am not an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, so I cannot go further than I have. However in the 12th century, the age for marriage without parental consent was set by the Roman Catholic church, a ruling which remains unchanged. For females it is 12 years and for males it is 14 years. Conversely in Islam, a 20year female old can not get married without the consent of her parents. Agreed Nigerian laws are neither Islamic or catholic. Instead the laws are guided by these major religions and native laws and customs. If we feel the need to put more clarity in this has come, then let us say so and do so in the proper way. Over the last year,each legislator has had constituency meetings on the ongoing constitutional amendments. This was stepped up to the Zonal groupings where each zone took a stand on the various issues. We had ample time to make submissions to amend our constitution. Anyone who didn’t do so at the time has no moral justification to take to twitter and facebook lamblasting imaginary changes in our laws.

Yerima’s fault on this occasion might also be in his timing. As a member of the current constitutional review committee, he had ample time to bring the issue to the table and stop it being included on the recommended change that was debated on Tuesday. But that is Yerima. That is his way. You can love him or hate him, that is another matter.

All I am saying here is,let us be careful in our expressing our sentiments and use social media to unite Nigeria unshakably, instead of ripping her apart bit by bit. Till there are no 5year olds left to marry even if Yerima wanted to.

Dr. Zainab Shinkafi-Bagudu is  MD Medicaid Radio-Diagnostics,  Aminu Kano Cresent, Wuse 2 Abuja.

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