Taiwo Akinlami is a child protection specialist; an independent legal & social regulatory expert; a consultant on child’s rights & responsibilities and a consultant to UNICEF on child protection. He speaks on the chances of Wasila escaping death if the court finds her guilty of killing her husband because our laws are against sentencing children to death
The story of Wasila Umaru is another clear but sad signal that children reject the retrogressive practice of child marriage, particularly in the North.
Please note that, having spent 17 years pleading the cause of the Nigerian child and his/her right to protection, I do not believe that parents who give out their children in marriage are wicked people, who do not want the best for their children.
I think it is, in most cases, that the parents lack the right knowledge, skill and attitude in determining the present and the future of their children. I believe that there is the need for back-breaking and relentless reorientation efforts, aimed at enlightening the parents on this serious matter and others relating to the welfare and future of the children..
I have also said it times without number that until we address the problem of poverty as a nation, we are not ready to address the issue of child’s rights and child is protection. Poverty is stronger than religious hold. As a matter of fact, many people see religion as their only hope, when they cannot make ends meet.
I think that is why Karl Marx said and I verily agree with him that ‘religion is the opium of the people.’ When the existence of a people, who are supposed to give care to children either as primary of secondary caregivers is abused, it will be unrealistic to expect them not to abuse their children.
If we do not arrest the trend of child marriage through reorientation of parents and eradication of poverty, the cases of child marriage may continue and we may again have in our hands cases of disgruntled children expressing their frustration like Wasila Umaru did.
On Wasila’s rights
On her rights, I think it is important to note that she is innocent until proven guilty as provided in the Constitution. It is also important to know that our law recognises the place of child offenders. When a child commits an offence, it is not the position of the law that he/she is allowed to go free simply because he/she is a child. He/she is called a child in conflict with the law.
A child in conflict with the law is not also exonerated simply because he/she commits or omits to commit the act because of a noble or justifiable cause. The thinking of the law is that no citizen should take law into his/her hands. It is called jungle justice.
Therefore it is very important to educate other children, who may be married today against their will and are considering the ‘Wasila Umaru Option’, that it may be counter-productive. If their goal is to be free from the marriage, they will definitely be free from their forced marriage but they may not be free from the wrath of the law and if they will be free, it may not be immediate.
If Wasila is found guilty
The good news for Wasila Umaru is that even if she found guilty by the court, she will not be sentenced to death because our law is against sentencing children to death.
Please note that the Child’s Rights Act 2003 has made copious and revolutionary provisions about the perception of the law on children in conflict with the law. The Child’s Rights Act, 2003 has provided for Child Justice Administration (Sections 204 –259) to replace the Juvenile Justice Administration, which has been in existence for several decades in Nigeria and supported by legislations like, Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA), Penal Code, Criminal Code and the Sharia Penal Code.
Under the former Juvenile Justice Administration, which was punitive in nature, children in conflict with the law were in most cases tried like adults, especially those who have committed serious or capital offences like robbery, murder, rape or similar severe offences.
As a result, children offenders have their cases tried in regular courts, sentenced to jail and imprisoned with adults instead of being given more reform-oriented, non-custodial forms of sentences. Section 204 of the Act provides: ‘No child shall be subjected to the criminal justice process or criminal sanctions, but a child alleged to have committed an act which would constitute a criminal offence if he were an adult shall be subjected only to the child justice system and processes set out in this Act.’
Please note that Kano State is one of the states which are yet to domesticate the Child’s Rights Act, 2003 as a state law and therefore Juvenile Justice Administration, which is punitive in nature as described above, is still in force.
As regards, the Boko Haram threat, I think it is the failure of the state that our government cannot guarantee the security and the welfare of its citizens. I think it is beyond child marriage. How did Boko Haram kidnap close to 300 girls, loading them into six trucks without any intervention.
The school, where the children were kidnapped, was locked for about four weeks because of the tension created by insecurity. When the children are to be lodged there to take their examination, what security measures were put in place to protect the children?
Call to government
The lasting call is for us to engage government to make a firm commitment to child protection systems. Systems’ thinking is the global trend in child protection today. It is to put in place formidable structures which are targeted towards prevention of all forms of abuse instead of focusing on sporadic response to child abuse.