By – Jemi Ekunkunbor
Pretty Aisha was 14 years old when she was escorted to her husband, Abdullahi close to three decades ago. Before her marriage on that fateful first day in July, her husband, Abdullahi, had told the neighbours he was taking a wife and that his wife would be brought to him from Kano his home state.
Abdullahi, popularly called AB by the young boys in the neighbourhood, was the mallam who sold Suya at the street junction at night and in the day, doubled as security man at the local primary school. Because of his Suya business and the fact that he allowed the young boys to enter the school field to play football, he became very popular and the young boys revved his ego and swag by simply calling him AB. That Abdullahi loved.
And so when news got around that he was going to get married, the neighbourhood
was agog, everyone made an effort to be around to attend the wedding. The women, many of whom were mothers of the young boys, had chosen a common colour of wrapper in support of Abdullahi. The bride was later escorted in at about 3pm. It was a modest party with many members of the local Hausa community in attendance. The bride looked so young, very pretty with tender eyes. Lai la, the local tattoo covered her arms and part of her feet.
Other young maidens came with her bearing gift items of enamel basins, pots and pans and other household items. There was music and dancing and plenty of the local Tuwo shinkafa served with some native soups.
The merrymaking did not die down until about 6.30 when the late guests began to disappear. By 7.30 pm the whole party had wound down and the neighbourhood was quiet again. Not a few were happy for AB although many of the mothers later gathered to gossip that they thought the girl was too young for AB, who must have been over 35 years at that time, tall and well built.
Since it was his wedding day, there was no Suya spot that night. And so Abdullahi’s spot which was usually the meeting point for most of the boys in the neighbourhood was deserted. Most people retired early that day.
But at about 11pm, the shrill cry of a young girl woke many of the neighbours. The cry for help tore through night, as the voice called for help from her mother. Neighbours opened their doors to find and hear the sound coming from the direction of Abdullahi’s one room apartment.
Abdullahi’s voice could also be heard as he tried to persuade his new bride to be quiet. The mothers shook their head and sighed in understanding as the reality of what was going on hit them all. Abdullahi was in a battle to consummate his marriage!
This writer who was young then and others her age were quickly dismissed and asked to go back to bed while the other women talked in low tones expressing deep pity for the young bride who was about to become a woman.
The drama did not end that night. As early as 6.30am, Aisha had packed her little belongings in her small suitcase and sat outside crying for Abdullahi to take her back to her mother. This drama continued for about four days before it dawned on her that help was far from near.
Little by little, she settled into marriage a broken woman, her innocence violated and deprived of her childhood. For Abdullahi, this embarrassment was something that he carried on his shoulder for a very long time afterwards.
With the recent endorsement by the Senate of section 29 (4) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended legalizing child marriage, the fate of many like Aisha hang in the balance. The amendment provides that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”
The amendment appears to employ backward integration to confer full age (maturity) on even married minors. Not only is their hope of completing secondary education threatened, their health is also threatened as young girls in that age bracket are often too tender for the rigours that sex and child bearing entail.
The law as it is gives full right for male adults to sexually abuse young girls under the pretence that a married girl no matter her age, is considered an adult. For this underage wife, she will also be saddled with the responsibility of bearing children.
But in a reaction to this development, Professor Oladapo Ashiru, Medical Director, Medical Art Centre, in Lagos, says, asking a child who is under aged to have a baby
is like ‘asking a baby who has not developed teeth to start chewing. The baby may get choked with the food and become constipated because the digestive process is not yet fully developed’
Describing the situation with the birth passage of a young girl, Prof. Ashiru says, ‘the problem here is that the development of the pelvic bone which is the bone surrounding the birth passage where the head of the baby goes through, is not fully developed until the age of 18-21 or thereabouts.
So when that pelvic bone is subjected to conception and delivery, it is not right for it
physiologically and anatomically. Consequently, in the womb, the foetus would grow and descend down the birth passage, and because the passage is narrow and not mature, when it is fully expanded, it will compress on the uterus and rectum. These two passages will be linked and because of the narrowness, the girl will have obstructed labour for a long time. In instances like this, some girls die trying to deliver.
Others will develop a fistula’. Ironically, while many argue that a girl of 13 may be too young to be considered ‘mature’ according to the new law, it is instructive to note that the age at which many young girls are experiencing their first menstrual cycle is decreasing.
A Lagos based Obstetrician and Gynecologist who would not want his name on Print, puts the age at between 10 – 11 years. The biological implication is that a 10 year old child who has started seeing her menstrual flow can get pregnant if she has sexual relationship with a man.
‘But psychologically, says this expert, ‘we know that a10 or 11 year old is a child who cannot make choices. She can get pregnant for all intent and purposes but she cannot cope with the demands of pregnancy.
Getting a 10 or 11 year old girl pregnant is to turn her into an adult overnight but her body does not have enough reserve as it were to be able to carry them through that period. They can be anaemic because they don’t know what to eat and what not to eat’.
Explaining the health implication of early marriage, this doctor also corroborated the points earlier made by Prof Ashiru. According to him, ‘For a baby to be able to pass through the pelvis of a woman, she needs to have attained a particular height which these children don’t have.
When they go into labour, because the pelvis is not adequately prepared, it is difficult for the baby to come out. So they have what is called obstructed labour because they are still children.
This obstructed labour and the compression of the baby’s head, can lead to Vesico-Vagina Fistula (VVF) or Recto Vagina Fistula (RVF). In some cases, it can
lead to the paralysis of their legs because of the prolonged labour. Some of them may never walk again in their lives after that episode’.
Girls with VVF litter several hospitals in the north, leaking perpetually from the private part. This medical condition comes with its own stigma as many of them have had to live isolated lives like lepers or social outcasts. The unfortunate part of it all is that the men who put them in this condition in the first place, often, abandon them in their hour of distress and move on to prey on other young girls.
‘If a girl gets lucky and finds cure, then the man comes back to take her’ says this Gynaecologist.
At a symposium in Abuja earlier in July, Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Hajia Zainab Maina, put the figure of women living with VVF condition in Nigeria at one million with 12,000-13,000 developing cases every year. With this figure, Nigeria has the highest incidence of VVF in the world! Sadly, the rate at which people develop this condition is higher than the repair rate of the damage.
The 35 Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria who endorsed the bill, led by former governor of Zamfara State, Ahmed Yerima, who married a 13 year old Egyptian minor, did this under the guise of religion.
According to reports, Yerima felt the clause to peg marriageable age at 18 is un-Islamic. So they voted and amended it to refer to any girl who is married to be of age.
And that covers the acts of our very own Senator whose under aged wife at the time of his marriage sparked a lot of outrage. So the question is, what does the Holy Book, the Qur’ran have to say about this nagging issue?
While the Holy Qur’an is silent about the age, at which a woman can get married, it however states in Qur’an 4 verse 6: ‘And test the orphans [in their abilities] until they reach marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them sound judgement, release their property to them. And do not consume it excessively and quickly, [anticipating] that they will grow up. And whoever, [when acting as guardian], is self-sufficient should refrain [from taking a fee]; and whoever is poor – let him take according to what is acceptable. Then when you release their property to them, bring witnesses upon them. And sufficient is Allah as Accountant’.
Shedding more light on this passage of the Qur’an, journalist and Islamic cleric, Haroon Ishola Balogun says, ‘the inference we can draw here is that there seems to be an affinity between being of marriageable age and the age of mature intellect and sound judgement. Under this verse, four basic conditions of marriage are established in Islam.
These are (1) proposal and acceptance (al-Ijaab wa alqubuul), (2) approval by both parents (ridaa waalidayn), (3) payment of a dowry by the groom (al-mihr) and (4) the presence of at least two male witnesses at the ceremony (shaahidayn ‘aadilayn)
Even when a minor is given out in marriage by her parents, there is protective solemnisation of marriage where the girl remained untouched until she attains marriageable age according to the Qur’an and at that point; if she decides otherwise; the marriage becomes invalid. So, if a minor whose hand has been given out in marriage upon attaining puberty declines to marry the man, the marriage becomes invalid. That is what the Qur’an means about sound judgment’.
But the truth remains that a 12, 13 or even 14 year old girl is only a child whose judgement cannot be fully considered to be sound neither can she make informed choices at that age. Even if she had reservations about the man, can she truly say no under the circumstances and as a Muslim?
Why should a girl who is not considered old enough to participate in an electoral process be old enough to warm a man’s bed? In civilized societies, girls of that age are still in school and would probably not finish until about 17 or 18 by which time they would not only have finished school but have matured physically.
As a Muslim and father of a young girl, I sought Mr. Haroon Ishola Balogun’s view and asked him if he will give out his young daughter in marriage.
According to him, ‘My personal view is not different from what the Qur’an says about marriage. The Qur’an did not specify age, it talks about maturity.
If my daughter is mature, yes, I will give her out in marriage. But I must add that although the prophet got married to Aisha at a tender age of 9, that wasn’t a religious thing. It was more cultural than religious because it was the practice of the Arabs to give out their daughters in marriage early. The Yorubas don’t give out their daughters in marriage that early but I think I will stick with the Islamic injunctions’.
Former member of the Senate, Senator Florence Ita Giwa, is convinced that many of her former colleagues in the Senate were hoodwinked into voting and endorsing such a bill.
She believes in the Senate and says, ‘the Senate is the most credible and politically mature institution in Nigeria at the moment. I am therefore confident that the Senate will reverse itself on this most unfortunate issue. The Senate that I know would never knowingly endorse any legislation that will harm the Nigerian girl child.
However, taking a swipe on the law itself she says ‘not only does the legislation in its present form pose a danger to the girl child’s education, the physical well being and even life of the Nigerian girl child is in danger as a result of this issue concocted by a few retrogressive elements who unfortunately, made it into the hallowed chambers of the Senate’
‘For all its flaws, the Child Rights Bill is the only document that puts together all the rights of the child, aimed at protecting the rights of children in Nigeria in terms of the present dangers and challenges in Nigeria’s policy space’ says Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, Executive Director, Women Arise.
However, she noted that for the Senate to include section 29 4 (b) of the 1999 Constitution in the amended constitution is to ‘insult the sensibility of Nigerians’ by ‘stylishly encouraging child marriage under religious sentiment’.
This she says is totally unacceptable in a secular state/nation. ‘Religion is not an excuse for impunity. Nigeria is not an Islamic State so no one group can force the tenets of his/her religion on the majority. It is obvious from the various responses we have been receiving that Senator Ahmed Yerima, tricked his colleagues into accepting the clause (i.e. Section 29, 4 (b) but that again shows the levity with which our Senators handle issues of public interest’.
For a long time to come, this bill will remain a matter of public interest because of the danger it poses to young girls. Armed with such a law, sexual predators and paedophiles have been empowered to be on the prowl seeking young girls to devour; girls who may never have the opportunity to complete school or the joy of being a child as they have to play wife to men old enough to be their father!
If media reports quoting the Senate President David Mark as saying that they were tricked into endorsing the bill is anything to go by, is there hope then of the possibility of revisiting this nutty and naughty bill? Can the Senate reverse itself? ‘The Senate President has assured the nation that the Senate will re visit the issue says Senator Florence Ita Giwa.
‘So I am confident that the plans of the retrogressive elements intent on defiling the Nigerian girl child will not succeed. If you recall, a majority of the senators voted to protect the girl child, a few of them were hoodwinked and did not fully understand the tricks being played, now that they know, the game is up for the paedophiles’
As the controversy continues to rage, government at all levels need to be reminded of the need to initiate policies that are child friendly. Any bill worth its salt should be aimed at protecting the child’s right to the basic things of life; right to education, right to good health, right to live. The continual violation of the rights of the child should be checked. The ordinary man and woman whose children are often the victims should be empowered economically. The high rate of poverty coupled with unchecked corruption, are often responsible for the anomalies we see in this society.
A girl not old enough to vote according to law, should not be considered old enough to be wife. Perhaps if primary and secondary school education is made compulsory in all the states, children will be kept in school until they are about 18 years by which age many of them will be ready for marriage not just physiologically but also emotionally. It is said man can’t tread where angels fear to tread.
If grown up women have been known to die at child birth, children whose bodies are still developing should not be sent to their early graves trying to be mothers or condemned to a life living with VVF.
The world and Nigeria stand still with bated breath to see what the David Mark-led Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria would do.