Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima. Image via
Thanks to a legal loophole, the average age of marriage for girls in Kebbi State, northern Nigeria, is 11 years old. The law is often manipulated and exploited for perverse ends, but it's rare that one forgotten detail in legislation can affect an entire mass of people quite so profoundly.
Section 29 of the Nigerian constitution allows any Nigerian of full age (18 or above) to renounce his or her citizenship. However, a subsection of that law adds that women can only be deemed of full age when they get married—a convenient loophole that's become easy to exploit by any adult man in the mood to snatch himself up a child bride.
The problem is widespread and unfortunately—after a brief glimmer of hope—isn't showing much sign of going away. On July 16, Nigeria's senate committee voted to remove the archaic subsection, thereby supporting the fight against forced marriage and pedophilia. However, after a heavy lobbying campaign, Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima—representative for Zamfara West in northern Nigeria—persuaded the Senate to reverse its decision, reenacting the subsection and making it totally OK (by law) for men well over the age of 18 to marry girls well under the age of 18.
But being the good Samaritan that he is, Yerima, who, at the age of 49 married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl, has defended his actions. He says he's merely showing concern for the girls of his and other Islamic-governed northern Nigerian states, arguing that the deletion of the subsection would be blasphemous. In his definition of the Islamic faith, when a woman is married she instantaneously reaches her full mental capacity, no matter what her age is. Presumably this means he endorses the idea that any nine-year-old girl married under Sharia law is responsible and intelligent enough to drive a car or possess a firearm.
Unsurprisingly, a huge number of Nigerians are furious about the overthrown amendment, with many crying foul play and accusing Yerima of achieving the vote reversal through either bribery or bullying tactics. And those claims might not be unfounded. Yerima has had run-ins with Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and faced several accusations of embezzlement during his career.
Financial bribes aside, Senate President David Mark has claimed that Senate members from the northern states were spiritually blackmailed. They suggested that if they didn't vote in favor of Yerima's cause, their loyalty to Islam would be questioned. And the Christian senators of Nigeria's south who stood by Yerima? It's safe to assume their excuse was a section of the constitution that states that the Nigerian government has no powers to legislate on "marriages under Islamic law and customary law including matrimonial causes."
Yerima justifying his marriage to a 13-year-old girl.
I spoke to Maryam Uwais, chairperson of the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative, an organization trying to protect the rights of Nigeria's women and children, who told me that, "Over half of the women in the north are married off by the age of 16 and commence childbirth within the first year of marriage.”
The young girls suffer multiple health risks from child marriages, Maryam explained, the most prevalent being vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), in which damage to the pelvis causes urine to drip continuously from the bladder into the vagina. This isn't only physically debilitating, women are often ostracized from their communities for having the condition. Most of the women affected by VVF come from the remote villages of the northern states—states that predominately lack healthcare facilities, such as Yerima’s own Zamfara. A surgeon told Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper that VVF is common “where ignorance and poverty are prevalent” and that it affects “young teenage girls of poor social economic background and women who are delivering babies for the first time.”
Child marriages also contribute to the alarming rates of illiteracy in young girls in northern Nigeria. Based on stats presented by Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi in April, as many as 93 percent of female children in the region are being denied access to secondary education. In the northwest, 70 percent of women between 20 and 29 are unable to read, compared with 9.7 percent in the southwest.
Tellingly, the men engaging in these marriages are acutely aware of the need to justify their behavior, using a number of excuses to try to pacify their critics. There are two that seem to hold the most weight in their minds. The first is that husbands sign a pledge not to have sex until their wife reaches puberty—however, the high levels of child rape and child sex slavery in the region suggest that for many this is a hollow promise. Secondly, they argue that the actions of the Prophet Muhammad—a guy who was going about his business 1,400 years ago—condone their own actions.
That second point was Yerima's own argument, explaining his marriage to his 13-year-old bride, Aisha, by saying, "History tells us that Prophet Muhammad did marry a young girl as well. Therefore I have not contravened any law." However, Sheikh Abdullah al-Marie, a senior Saudi cleric, has publicly denounced Yerima's clearly flawed argument, stating that, “Aisha’s marriage cannot be equated with child marriages today because the conditions and circumstances are not the same.”
The latest research from UNICEF indicates that between 2007 and 2011 the number of Nigerian girls getting married before the age of 15 increased by 5 percent. That percentage managed to grow significantly despite the Child Rights Act (CRA) that was created in 2003, which makes 18 the age of “maturity.” This is possibly due to only 24 of the 36 states in Nigeria having passed the CRA, though UNICEF is working hard to support and monitor the implementation of the act throughout the country. Still, without the legal support they were about to get in the deletion of the subsection, it’s not going to be easy.
As depressing as the situation might seem, here's hoping the media coverage piled onto Nigeria's child-marriage policies will alert people to how serious a violation of both children's and women's rights this tradition really is.
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