By Abel Daniel, Nasarawa

Agyema is a community of Agatu speaking people in Ekye Development Area of Nasarawa state. This community of about 12,000 inhabitants is located near the River Benue and surrounded by other Agatu villages like Otia, Anagoga, Tariga, Olegangulu and others. Agyema is about 10kilometers from Agbashi, the headquarters of Ekye Development Area and about 50kilometers from Lafia, the state capital.

The roads linking the community with other communities are not motorable, motorcycle is the only means of transportation and sometimes canoe which is used to cross the river Benue. Agyema village has so far produced only one lady graduate who resides in Lafia, the state capital. Occupationally, Agyema is typically known for farming and fishing as their source of livelihood.

But visitors to the community are greeted with an unusual sight. Pregnancy among minors within the age bracket of 12 and 16 is common in the community. This is a community where their female children are given out in marriage as early as 12 years old. At age 13 a girl in the Agyema village already has a child and is already pregnant for a second child.

Another girl who is barely 16 years old had already given birth to three children. These girls, according to our laws are considered as minors who should still be under the care of their parents but who are already parents themselves.

But why will parents give out their underage girls in marriage? Recently a concerned group from the community raised an alarm at a workshop on the disturbing prevalence of underage marriages among girls and the increasing number of out of school children in the community.

The group blamed the ugly trend on poverty and lack of government presence in Agatu communities in Ekye development area of Doma local government.

When Saturday Vanguard visited Agyema village to find out why underage marriage is rampant there, the residents expressed their disappointment in the failure of government over the years to respond to their plight.

Puberty

A girl of 13 can get pregnant and give birth if she has attained sexual maturity known as puberty. A girl matures sexually faster than a boy. Normally, puberty usually happens between ages 10 and 14 for a girl and ages 12 and 16 for a boy. However puberty has been known to occur as early as the age of 8 for girls in some instances.

In a girl, the first physical sign of puberty is usually breast development, followed by growth of body hair under the arms, legs and pubic area. Some vaginal discharge may follow before the onset of full menstrual periods.

As puberty progresses, the girl grows taller faster, develops wider hips and gains weight. The complete cycle of puberty in a girl usually lasts 2-3 years  before the peak which is the onset of menstrual periods.

Once the menstrual periods begin, it is indication that the reproductive organs are fully developed and pregnancy can occur if she engages in unprotected sex.

So a girl who attains puberty by age 9 or 10, and starts menstruating 2-3 years later when she is 11-13, she can definitely get pregnant and give birth. 

Poverty responsible for child marriage — Village head

In an exclusive interview with the village head of Agyema, Chief Godiya Aitonu, he said that the community was completely out of touch with the developing world even as there was no motorable road that connects the community.

His words: “When you entered the community did you see any road where a car can come in? It is only by motorbike. Between this community and Agbashi which is about 10km, you know how many hours it took you to reach this community. That is the condition we find ourselves and that is what we have been facing for so many years.

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Our main occupation is farming or fishing. Most times when we farm we don’t have means to convey our farm produce to the market. Most times the farm produce perish here and that has discouraged so many families from engaging in the farming business we are known for”.

Chief Godiya however admitted that underage marriages and the problem of out-of-school children are very rampant and on the increase in the community. He regretted that it was not their culture to marry out their girl child at early age.

According to him, “the dream of every father or mother is to bring up children that would be great through good education. But where the parents do not have the wherewithal to give the children good education is it not better to let the child marry?

“Here, we have primary and secondary schools built by the state government but there is no maintenance and no good teacher. They don’t want to stay in this community because there is no infrastructure and it is not safe.

We are also confronted with the menace of Fulani attacks, they would not allow us to farm. Time without number our young girls and wives have been raped by these Fulani and that is why our women are afraid to step out of the community to the farm.

“Governor Tanko Almakura built a police station in this community when he was the governor, but as we are talking right now that building is empty. We don’t have a single police officer here in Agyema.

Whenever we have any issue of insecurity we can’t get the attention of the police or any security operatives till we travel to Agbashi. We have pleaded with the DPO Agbashi to send his officers to our community but his complaint is that he does not have enough police officers in Agbashi.

“The absence of security personnel has left the community at the mercy of Fulani herdsmen who perpetrate all kinds of atrocities against the villagers almost on a daily basis. How can a community of a population of over ten thousand be without a single security operative? My community is grossly neglected.

Each time teachers are posted from other communities to our own, in no time we will not see them again and when we asked, they would tell us they could not live in our village because of the fear of Fulani attackers and rapists. Our children cannot go to farm, we can’t afford to pay their school fees because our source of livelihood which is farming is almost cut off by Fulani herders.

“Other communities in the state have left us behind in areas of infrastructure like roads, electricity, schools, health, provision of potable water and other things. When ever politicians visit our community during electioneering campaigns we tell them our challenges but that would be the end of it”.

We’re at the mercy of Fulani herdsmen — Community elder

When Vanguard spoke with an elder in the community, Mr. James Ali on why early marriage was common amongst underage girls, he said the community was at the mercy of Fulani herdsmen who are after young girls and even married women.

“We are afraid the way things are going on in this village. Our women are not safe, they are the targets of Fulani men harassing and forcefully sleeping with our women, including married women. The Fulani men are on rampage. raping our girls and wives and we can’t do anything. The government neglected us and Fulani would not allow us farm. As the girls have nothing to do it becomes almost natural that they are married out or get pregnant.” James said

My parents couldn’t afford to sponsor my education — 13-year-old mother of one

One of the underage girls who spoke to Saturday Vanguard but would not want her name mentioned said her plan while growing up was to further her education to the university level but her parents didn’t have the resources to train her. She said she took to early marriage because she wanted to be a responsible mother even though marrying early had halted her educational career. The 13-year old mother of one appealed to the government to help young girls in Agyema and other neighbouring villages to give them a bright future.

When asked how she delivered her baby, she smiled and said, “I thank God but it was not easy. I started having pain in my lower abdomen and reported to my mother who conducted local delivery at home”.

Her first baby is about a year and two months and she is already pregnant and expecting her second baby in few months. She spoke in their local language.

Fulani herdsmen have rendered us poor — Mother of underage married girl

Saturday Vanguard also spoke with one of the mothers of an underage girl who has three children already at the age of 16. The mother explained that she and her husband didn’t have money to sponsor education of their children.

According to her, “our source of earning money is through farming but the Fulani do not allow our crops to grow. Whenever we plant yams and cassava, they would move their cattle to eat up our crops and if we complain, we are inviting trouble”. She therefore appealed to the government to put an end to the activities of the herdsmen who had prevented them from going to the farm. She further begged the state government to construct the road leading to their community.

Increase in out-of-school children caused by govt neglect — Community leader

Mr Musa Asusu, a community leader also told Vanguard that Agyema community has been abandoned by the state government for too long and the consequence was the increase in out-of-school children in the community.

“Ours is a community without a single police officer, no motorable road, dilapidated primary school and lack of teachers to teach the children. I used to harvest a trailer load of yams but because of insecurity and what the Fulani are doing, I don’t even have a single farm right now. How do I take care of my family? The only farm work we are doing now is rice farming during the raining season and after that we dare not plant yam or cassava which used to be the major sources of our income. If you plant any of such the Fulani will move their cattle and destroy the farm”, he said.

Islam allows underage marriage —Imam Saidu

Speaking from the Islamic perspective, Imam Yusuf Saidu, an Islamic scholar and preacher based in Lafia affirmed that according to the holy Qur’an, marrying an under age girl is allowed but such marriage must not be consummated until maturity.

Yusuf however said that “before marrying an under age girl certain requirements must be put into consideration according to Islamic injunctions which state that the man must spend some times with the wife to study her and make sure she has good knowledge of the Qur’an. Islam believes that the man who is marrying the girl of this age must be a Muslim faithful, capable of providing for her needs. He must also determine whether she has all it takes in order to relate with her as a wife, and if this is not the case, then the man must exercise discipline to ensure she attains maturity before relating with her while she remains in his house”.

Marriage is for adults, not children — Pastor Ovey

From the Biblical viewpoint however, Pastor Mathew Ovey of Chris Assembly argued that marriage is for adult and not children. Pastor Ovey also argued that child marriage is against the Child Rights Act. He said “the government must take the child right law serious because that is the only way the future of the girl child can be guaranteed”. Ovey lamented that the girl child is prone to so many vices in the society that threaten her future such as rape, rituals, child marriage and trafficking

Underage marriage is against the law — Ayiwulu, legal practitioner

Marriage of a minor has also been described as a violation of the right of the girl child as clearly stipulated by the Child Right Act which Nasarawa has already domesticated since 2020.

A Lafia based legal practitioner and activist Mr Ayiwulu Ayiwulu explained that the law is clear and without any ambiguity on who a minor is when it comes to marriage.

Ayiwulu argued that, “Nasarawa state has domesticated the Child Right Act and therefore it is binding on any one whether in rural or urban communities across the state. Ignorance of the law is not a justification in cases where some people will claim they are not aware.

“However the major problem we have in our state is the fact that some rely on religious creed that their religion approves of under age marriage but this does not repeal the law. The effectiveness of such law is in how the government wants it implemented. Designated agencies of the government should be up and doing in terms of sensitization to ensure proper awareness”.

Negative effect is both psychological, physiological—Dr Adikwu

A medical practitioner, Dr Bernard Adikwu, who is the Principal Medical Officer with the Federal University of Lafia explained that the negative effect of under age marriage of a girl child is both psychological and physiological.

According to Dr Adikwu, vaginal fistula is a serious disability that can be experienced by an under age girl after childbirth. It is a kind of a hole that develops between the vagina and the bladder, resulting in uncontrollable leaking of urine through the vagina.

The most common cause of vesico-vaginal fistula is early marriage. Girls with this disability are often abandoned by their husbands and isolated from the community due to the smell and associated shame of urine leakage. However, this type of disability can be avoided by regulating early marriage which lead to child pregnancy and changing the attitudes of a community to women.

Other challenges associated with early marriages among under age girls include mental imbalance because of poor mental development.

“A girl at the age of 13 to 17 years may not be mentally developed enough to handle challenges resulting from marriages. It is worst if the husband or the boy that impregnated her is within that age range, you then find frustrations which could lead to depression and collapse of such marriages and that could affect children born from that marriages and a vicious circle continuation”, Dr. Bernard noted.

Most rural dwellers unaware of laws against child marriage—Civil Society Organization

In his own contribution, a representative of the Civil Society Organization, Mr Abdullazeez Bako said the problem of under age marriages and pregnancies is rampant in communities around Agbashi, Akpata, Agyema, Udeni Magaji and a host of other communities.

“We expect the state government through its agencies to embark on thorough education of traditional and community leaders on child right laws. I observe that most rural dwellers are not in touch with some of these laws that have to do with marriage of under age girls. My NGO is planning to embark on sensitization on issues of marriages of minor and its consequences”, Abdullazeez said.

Govt embarks on state wide sensitization

The Nasarawa State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development however claimed they were not aware of the prevalence of marriages among under age girls any where in the state.

Spokesperson of the ministry, Mr Augustine Ashikeni, who is the Director, Social Welfare told the Saturday Vanguard that the ministry had embarked on state wide sensitization from one community to the other.

“The entire ministry has embarked on tour to various communities. We have had engagement with women groups, traditional rulers and opinion leaders sensitizing them against violation of the child right laws one of which is under age marriage and other social vises like rape and child abuse.

“Each time we have such engagement the commissioner provides her personal contact to them to reach her in the event of any form of violation of any child. We told them that any issue around a girl child in particular should be treated with paramount importance”, the director said.

House of Assembly tasks executive to enforce the law

The State House of Assembly on its part condemned the practice of under age marriage in any community in the state. The Deputy Chief Whip, Hon Muhammed Ibrahim Alkali said that the Child Rights Act has since been domesticated in the state since 2006, hence the need to ensure the implementation of the law which forbids under age marriage.

“Ours is to make laws while the executive arm is to ensure compliance. We expect the executive to ensure that these laws are obeyed to the letter. In addressing such violation of the Child Right Law that prohibits marriage of under age girls, proper sensitization is key and should be consistent. The consequences of under age marriage are devastating and therefore it is mandatory that the right of the child is given proper attention to secure the future of our girls “, the deputy chief whip said.

Medical perspective

Nigeria has over 40 per cent of the total number of child brides in Africa. Child marriage, according to UNICEF, has numerous long-term negative implications on children’s rights.

 Children forced into marriage are at an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDs, syphilis, gonorrhea, etc.  Underage girls that are married are usually less likely to have access to healthcare and access to medications or treatments required to manage STIs. They are also at higher risk of physical and sexual violence.

Underage pregnancy is a major public health problem in Nigeria, particularly in the north western part of the country where significant number of girls becomes mothers before they are 18 years old. This contributes to the high rate of maternal and child morbidity, and mortality.

Those affected have less formal education, are unemployed, lack adequate antenatal care and have high rate of negative pregnancy outcomes.

Because their pelvis has not expanded enough they are exposed to obstructed labour that leads to other complications such as fistulas between the rectum and bladder because the head of the baby bruises those areas and the surrounding organs. Therefore, they are prone to complications such as vesico-vaginal fistula, VVF (leakage of urine) and recto-vaginal fistula, RVF (leakage of feces), among other complications.

They also have poor pregnancy outcomes, their babies are prone to low birth weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions that require intensive neonatal care. High mortality of the baby and mother is commonplace.

Legal perspective

Child marriage contravenes the Nigerian constitution as well as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Child marriage is illegal according to the Federal Child Rights Act of 2003. Section 18 of the CRA, 2003 says: “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever”. 

 Child marriage runs contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms that 18 years is the age of majority (consent), and guarantees a child’s right to be free from coercion and violence, and to get health care and education.

Although Nigeria is a signatory to these laws, not all of the nation’s 36 states have adopted the Child Rights Act. Some states have actually taken advantage of provisions in the Nigerian 1999 constitution that appear to conflict with the position of the CRA, 2003.

According to Section 29 (4) of the Constitution, the age of maturity is age 18, but in Section 29 (4) (b) there is a clause that can be interpreted to mean that the girl child girl reaches maturity once they get married, regardless of the age of marriage.

Most of the states yet to adopt the federal law and to set 18 as the age of consent for marriage are predominantly the northern States with Islamic legal systems.

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.