Nigeria’s opportunity to clarify its position on minimum age of marriage

Young girls in Niger who suffer or have suffered fistula | Photo credit: Bridgewise

This article was originally posted on Think Africa Press

Child marriage has once again sparked heated debate in Nigeria, after the Senate failed to remove a constitutional clause that is read by many as a tacit legitimisation of early marriage.

Nigeria’s constitution stipulates that citizens who wish to renounce their citizenship must be of full age – 18 years-old – to do so. The Senate Committee on the Review of the Constitution recommended the removal of section 29(4)(b), which states that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age”.

The recommendation was contended, however, on the grounds that it discriminated against Muslim women who are considered “of age” once they are married. In a second vote, the recommendation did not receive the two-thirds majority required and the provision remains, prompting outcry from some Nigerians.

Let us be clear, Nigerian senators did not vote to legalise child marriage. The scope of the clause in question has always been limited to citizenship. The developments do however point to a wider problem: the lack of legal clarity and consistency when it comes to the age at which women are legally allowed to marry.

Legal clarity and consistency needed on minimum age of marriage

Nigeria is not alone in facing this problem. While 32 African countries have set the minimum age of marriage at 18, many allow exceptions. The Africa Child Policy Forum, a member of Girls Not Brides, has done an extensive study of minimum age of marriage laws throughout Africa. It found that in Ethiopia, for example, the Ministry of Justice has discretionary power to authorise marriages before 18. In Burkina Faso it is the Civil Court. In Angola, the law accepts that 15-year-old girls can be married with their parents’ consent, even though the age of marriage is 18.

There is much that can be done in Nigeria to address this lack of legal clarity. It could for example, ensure that more Nigerian states adopt the Child Rights Act, which defines 18 as the legal minimum age of marriage. The country is also party to some of the most progressive treaties in the world when it comes to protecting the rights of girls and women, such as the Maputo Protocol which establishes the minimum age of marriage at 18. As one of the first African states to ratify the Protocol, Nigeria has committed to ensuring that its protections are enjoyed by the women and girls who need them the most. Helpfully, the Maputo Protocol provides some concrete and pragmatic suggestions to governments on how they can do so.

A minimum age of marriage matters

Why does this matter? Minimum age of marriage legislation is a clear indication of where the government stands on child marriage. It also provides an empowering basis for children themselves, and those who work to protect their rights, to argue against perpetrators, whether in the community or in court.

What is more, rates of child marriage in Nigeria are high. According to UNICEF’s most recent estimates, 39% of girls are married before 18 years old. Globally, it is estimated that 14 million girls a year marry as children.

Child marriage has devastating consequences for girls. Often married to much older men, it is difficult for them to assert their wishes, particularly when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health, and they are vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse. Child brides usually drop out of school and are denied their rights to education, to health, to live in safety and to choose when and whom to marry.

Child brides are soon under pressure to prove their fertility, leading to early and frequent pregnancies. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. If they survive childbirth, they are at risk of pregnancy-related complications such as fistula, a debilitating injury caused by obstructed labour. It is estimated that Nigeria is home to 10% of the world’s fistula cases.

Laws aren’t enough, but they’re an important part of efforts needed to end child marriage

Laws alone are of course not the solution, but they are one important part of the broad set of efforts needed to end child marriage. Members of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 300 civil society organisations including in Nigeria, combine a number of different approaches to addressing this problem: educating and empowering girls; mobilising communities including religious, traditional and community leaders, to support ending child marriage; and supporting youth to become advocates for change.

Not long ago, child marriage was a taboo topic. The recent debate in Nigeria reflects growing acknowledgement that we can no longer ignore this problem. It will not be easy to end child marriage, but we know that when a girl marries as an adult she is unlikely to marry her own daughter off as a child. With the right laws and programmes in place, we are convinced that it will be possible to end child marriage in a single generation.