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Controversy in Nigeria over minimum age of marriage

Nigerians express their opposition to child marriage on social media via #ChildNotBride

On 16 July 2013, Nigerian senators gathered to consider recommendations made to them by a committee tasked with reviewing the country’s Constitution.

One of the recommendations made by the Senate Committee on the Review of the Constitution concerned section 29 of the Constitution which refers to situations in which Nigerian citizens may renounce their citizenship. Section 29 stipulates that citizens must be of full age to do so.

The section adds that “full age means the age of eighteen years and above” (S.29 (4)(a)), and specifies that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age” (S.29(4)(b)).

The Committee recommended to senators that section 29(4)(b) be deleted from the Constitution. In an initial vote a majority of senators voted in favour of deleting this section.

This vote, however, was challenged by Senator Ahmed Yerima on the grounds that the deletion of the section 29(4)(b) discriminated against Muslim women, who are considered “of age” once they are married. The Committee’s recommendation was put to vote for a second time and on this occasion it did not receive two thirds of the votes required by the Constitution to make a change to the same.

This does not mean that senators voted to legalise child marriage in Nigeria. The contentious clause has been part of the Constitution since 1979, and its scope has always been limited to the question of renunciation of citizenship. However, the senators’ decision to retain the clause, particularly in view of the arguments that convinced them to do so, has been considered by many as an implicit legitimisation of child marriage.

Groups such as the Gender and Constitution Reform Network (GECORN), the Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF), the Wellbeing Foundation Africa and the Nigerian branch of the International Federation of Women Lawyers have criticised the vote.

The developments have garnered much media attention and many Nigerians have express their concern on social media. A lively debate has taken place using the Hashtag #ChildNotBride on Twitter and an online petition to the United Nations has gathered over 20,000 signatures to-date. Some Nigerians have also taken to the street to voice their discontent. (For more social media reaction, see Al Jazeera The Stream’s Storify.)

This is not the first time that Senator Yerima has drawn attention on the issue of early marriage. In 2010 he sparked controversy when he married a 13 year-old girl.

It should also be noted that the Nigerian Constitution does not establish a minimum age of marriage. The Child Rights Act, which was passed in 2003, sets the age of marriage at 18 years-old. However, only 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted this act. As a result, in some areas of the country the minimum age of marriage can be as low as 12 years-old.

The president of the Senate is reportedly said to be considering re-visiting the issue.