Child marriage is a social malaise that limits education and economic opportunities for families and nations.
By Nonyelum A. Ujam*
The United Nations International Children’s Education Fund, UNICEF, defines a child as any person below the age of 18 while child marriage refers to “any formal marriage or informal union between a child and an adult or another child.” UNICEF estimates about 12 million girls marry each year, and the world has about 650 million females who married as children.
Child marriages not only limit individual human rights, but perpetuate poverty and inequality for entire communities and countries.
Nigeria, has the largest number of child brides in West and Central Africa, at 22 million, accounting for 40 percent of all child brides in the region, with 18 percent married by age 15 and 44 percent married by age 18. Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy is characterized by a dichotomy of extremes – most people live in either extreme wealth or abject poverty, the latter far surpassing the former. Poverty and underdevelopment have been identified as enablers of this deplorable practice, and child marriage is more than twice as likely to occur in rural areas and over three times more common among the poorest demographic: 80 percent of young women from the poorest families marry in childhood as compared to 10 percent from the richest. Nigeria’s child marriage is most prevalent in the North, where the poverty rate is highest, averaging 77 percent, where child marriage is most prevalent, explains human rights advocate Tim S. Braimah.
To challenge this practice, the Nigerian government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 and the African Union’s Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2003, going further to incorporate both instruments into domestic law by promulgating the Child’s Right Act in 2003.
While regarded as a step in the right direction, the Child’s Right Act provides insufficient protection for victims of child marriage. Moreover, among Nigeria’s multiple ethnic are cultures and practices that promote child marriage, from religious beliefs to laws and traditions that can be regarded as both structural and cultural. The act is designed to safeguard children’s rights, protecting them from every form of abuse and inhumanity. This includes invalidating any marriage contract for persons under the age of 18 and prohibiting child betrothal by legal guardians or parents. Still, the act is weak, stipulating a derisory maximum punishment of five years imprisonment and a fine equivalent to about $1,400 in addition to loss of custody. Additionally, the act adopted in 2003 must be passed into law by each of Nigeria’s states for child marriage to be considered illegal, as children remain in the legislative preserve of states, notes law professor Enyinna S. Nwauche, Thus, laggard states continue the practice with impunity. In addition, the Nigerian constitution permits freedom of religion and belief in practice and observance, as well as adherence to its teachings, including the practice of Sharia law, explains Braimah in an article. Notably, of the 12 northern states yet to implement the act, 11 have Sharia law embedded in their penal code. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 14(2), enjoins state parties to respect the rights of legal guardians and parents in providing direction to children concerning education, religion and culture.
Some cultural traditions also support child marriage, dominant in patriarchal societies like the Nigerian Islamic Hausa-Fulani tribe that practices Sharia law, explains law professor Kayode Olatunbosun Fayokun. According to Sharia law, an individual reaches adulthood at puberty and can be contracted into marriage – advantageous for poor families in rural areas and reducing family responsibilities for the short-term. Cultural norms in northern Nigeria associate a girl’s virginity with family honor and suggest early marriages prevent sexual assault, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and family dishonor. The Nigerian constitution recognizes Sharia law, and so Islamic and customary marriages are common in the north, immune to the prohibition on child marriage as outlined in the Child’s Right Law.
In Northeastern and Northwestern Nigeria where child marriage is most prevalent, poor educational outcomes, a high rate of out-of-school girls, poverty, insecurity and an anti-Western insurgency encourage the practice. Increased apathy to school attendance, particularly due to the upsurge in Boko Haram insurgency and the kidnapping of more than 270 girls from a school in the region. Families resort to child marriage to protect girls from violence associated with these social ills.
The impacts of child marriage are pervasive, from health risks associated with childhood pregnancy, delivery and parenting to mental health issues due to isolation and stress. The median age for a first marriage among Nigerian women is 18 and 27 among men. Studies have found that child brides are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and confronting reproductive challenges: Girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those in their twenties, and girls under 18 are 60 percent more likely to lose their child. Victims of child marriage are more susceptible to domestic violence including marital rape, an act not recognized as a crime in many patriarchal societies – perpetuated freely and without consequence. Girls are less likely to remain in school, limiting opportunity to accumulate skills, savings or endowments, according to Joan Johnson-Freese, thus promoting the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and child marriage. Ultimately, victims are confined to domestic roles without agency, blocked from opportunities that could translate to improved economic productivity. The cycle further diminishes young women’s confidence and reinforces their inability to participate in society.
The continuance of child marriage also has devastating effects on nations’ economies, with impact on education attainment, workforce participation, and participation in decision-making and investments. Reduced educational attainment ultimately affects an individual’s earning potential, leading to negative developmental outcomes thus perpetuating extreme poverty and widening inequality gaps. Ending child marriage yields positive gains, with an increase up to 15 percent of baseline yearly wage spending by countries. Nigeria could have generated up to $7.6 billion in increased earnings and productivity in 2015 alone. In effect, child marriage discourages economic and inclusive growth, thus increasing the country’s economic divide.
Child marriage is a social malaise, among the strongest, that requires eradication. “Overall for young women, early marriage and early motherhood can severely curtail educational and employment opportunities and are likely to have a long-term, adverse impact on their and their children’s quality of life,” noted the Report of the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. A child’s inability to consent to a supposed lifelong journey must raise questions regarding its legality, Fayokun insists.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, structure and culture are intertwined, and the ambiguity of the Nigerian Constitution encourages the practice of child marriage. For instance, while the adoption of state religion is prohibited, the constitution allows states to make laws for peace and good governance, Braimah explains. This inadvertently permits Sharia law, thus promoting child marriage. Furthermore, the constitution removes marriages under Islamic and customary law from federal legislative competence, granting the power of formation, amendment and dissolution of marriages to the state.
In a global society, structure must be separated from culture and protect the rights of children. Concerted effort on legislative and policy reforms is required to improve social development, increase economic opportunities particularly for rural females, enhance education and health for girls, and raise awareness on the detrimental consequences of child marriage.
*Nonyelum A. Ujam works in Development Finance at the Central Bank of Nigeria and is pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard in Development Practice.