January 17, 2023

The monster of child marriage

The monster of child marriage

By Kenechukwu Obiezu

IN the appalling arrangement of child marriage across Nigeria and the world, those who marry children are as guilty as those who marry off children in what is a grand but grievous theft.

All those who get involved, including all those who consent either by their silence or compliance, are thieves of the worst kind. From girls barely off their mothers’ breast, they steal a childhood, a girlhood, and more damningly, a future.

In the place of innocence, they sow iniquity, and from bodies unblemished by the complications of adulthood, they force out anguished lives. In Nigeria, as in many other countries around the world that have failed to reconcile equity and equality, being a woman is a never-ending battle.

The marginalisation begins in childhood, and by the time girlhood arrives and finally adulthood, it has metamorphosed into something that is at once malicious and malignant. 

In many Nigerian homes, girls are radically taught to live differently from boys, not because biology and physiology necessarily dictate so but because, as long as society can remember, that is what it has been.

When, in April 2022, the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja ordered that 35 per cent of all appointments into public office be reserved for women in keeping with the National Gender Policy, it sounded like a defiant rebuke of the status quo in Nigeria.

As expected, President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling All Progressives Congress have given the judgement short shrift, despite their eccentricities. So, in public life, women remain what they are and have always been: painfully invisible.

Locked and lurking in shadows, a defiant, dignified, and delicate demographic that may just hold the magic wand that would solve Nigeria’s multifaceted problems remains wounded. It is in those same shadows that something else lurks, something infinitely egregious, something that works the gravest injustice on innocence: child marriage.

A spectre that looms large over the conscience of Nigeria, it remains abominably wrong that girls who are only children could be sold off as wives to men who are old enough to be their fathers and even their grandfathers.

Of course, it would have been surprising if this had not always pricked the conscience of a country. There have been voices—far too few, it must be said—that have railed against the practice but have so far failed to yield the desired results. It was gratifying then that recently, about 473,429 Nigerians signed a petition to end child marriage in the country.

Even more gratifying was the fact that the petitions were coordinated by three teenage girls who have taken it upon themselves to drive change. The girls: Kudirat Abiola, Susan Ubogu, and Temitayo Asuni, while pointing out the lacuna in the existing laws, called on President Buhari to ban the practice.

According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the 11th highest percentage of child marriage in the world, with 44 per cent of the female population married off before their 18th birthday.

To know that this is the case is simply heartbreaking. Of the faces behind the figures, 44 per cent may appear to be just manageable or not utterly alarming.

However, in a country where even adults struggle mightily with the demands of marriage, as demonstrated by the recent spike in the rate of divorce around the country, the burden marriage imposes on young girls, some of whom are yet to reach puberty, is simply unimaginable. And for what? It is difficult to fully understand what continues to drive this practice, which is as abominable as it is atrocious. In a country where society experiments with a lot of reprehensible practices to the point of normalising them, marrying off children is as odious as it gets.

The justifications are usually quick to jut out. They always either wear religious robes or take on the toga of tradition. Yet, just beneath the surface always lies something deeper, something that matches even the deepest of gashes.

To perpetrate their perversions, pedophiles hide behind prescriptions and practices. It is people without conscience who hide their callousness behind customs. Nigeria must abolish the practice at all levels, in spite of the opposition, which has often proven stiff and spirited. All around the country, it appears there are men and even women in key positions, where policies are polished, who want to see that Nigeria remains a country where pre-teen and teenage girls can be married off easily.

Such a country, however, is one that is deeply unjust and unequal. Such a country is doomed to stagnation. Such a country is cursed to repeat the cycles of failure that continue to hold it back.

It is a vicious cycle that must now be broken. It will take some breaking. It will take legislation, uncommon political will, and massive sensitisation.

It will take a lot of work to get people to adopt a new way of thinking, living, and doing things. However, the sacrifices are worth making. for the moment and the immediate future.

Ridding Nigeria of child brides and abolishing a practice that deeply wounds womanhood is necessary if the country is to regain its moral compass and secure the present and future of millions of its girls.

Obiezu, a public affairs commentator, wrote from Lagos