By Adedamola Nadi
July 2013 saw a wave of anger-fuelled protests across Nigeria and diaspora about the issue of child marriage in the country. The tag “childnotbride” swept across all social media platforms encouraging people to sign petitions in the bid to stop the Nigerian senate from legalizing child marriage. A Change.org petition which has gathered over 140,000 signatures urged the United Nations to “Stop the Nigerian Senate from Making Under-Age Marriage Law!”
However, a closer examination of the situation reveals that the outrage was partly misdirected…
On the 18th of July 2013, the Nigerian Senate voted on the removal of a clause in Chapter 3, Section 29, Sub-section 4b of the Nigerian Constitution. This section relates to the issue of citizenship and in particular, the renunciation of the Nigerian Citizenship. Section 29 of the constitution reads…
“(1) Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.
(2) The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection (1) of this section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria.
(3) The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if – (a) the declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or (b) in his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section. (a) “full age” means the age of eighteen years and above; (b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age”
-Chapter 3, Section 29 of The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
The above section stipulates the conditions and process for the renunciation of the Nigerian citizenship. A Nigerian may renounce his/her citizenship if he/she is of “full age”. The bone of contention lies in subsection 4a and 4b which defined what is meant by “full age” and suggests that any woman, regardless of her age, as long as she is married shall be considered to be of “full age” and may renounce her citizenship.
Initial votes in the Senate were in favour of the removal of the clause (4b) with the required amount (two-thirds of the Senate) for a constitutional amendment. However, one Senator, Ahmed Yerima (who married his fourth wife at the age of 14), demanded a re-vote on the basis that the removal of the clause was against traditional Islamic beliefs which allow for the marriage of women under the age of eighteen as long as the women are deemed “mature”. The second vote still reflected the will of the majority of the members of the Senate to remove the clause but however, some senators were swayed by Ahmed Yerima’s sentiments and thus, the required two-thirds for a constitutional amendment was not reached.
This led to the outrage which gave birth to the protests, petitions and e-petitions which garnered support from many across the globe. Aljazeera, on the 3rd of September 2013 broadcasted a heated live debate which featured Senator Ahmed Yerima himself and Stella Damasus, a popular actress in Nigeria and Africa. This debate went viral on various social media platforms. In a country where the civil society at large has been hijacked by the government and soiled in corruption, it was indeed refreshing to see various Human Rights groups and Women’s groups rise and speak up with one voice against the political system. Unfortunately, the clause and its implication for young Nigerian girls remain till today.
Why the protests failed
A number of factors led to the subsequent insignificance of the initially promising protests. First, the majority of the activists were not properly informed and thus, passed on the wrong information to the public. Many claimed that a “new law”, legalizing child marriage has been passed by the Senate; some stated that the Senate was deliberating on making child marriage legal. It is important to note that the Senate was not passing a new law nor was the Senate thinking about passing a new law on marriage in July 2013.
The 18th of July vote was primarily about the renunciation of the Nigerian Citizenship. Although clause 4b touched on the issue of marriage and age, it was not the primary focus. This made it easy for the government to play down the public outcry as many government officials dismissed the accusation that child marriage has been made legal based on the simple fact that the section of the constitution in question was about Citizenship and not marriage.
Secondly, the lack of constitutional knowledge on the part of the civil society meant that the protests’ emphasis was misplaced. WELA (Women Empowerment and Legal Aid Initiative), a women’s rights group in Nigeria, called for the prosecution of Senator Ahmed Yerima but did not make it clear why the Senator should be prosecuted when he had not actually committed any crime.
It is important to note that the Senator did not call for an addition to the constitution but wanted the constitution to be left as it is, not amended. The 18th of July vote was primarily about the renunciation of the Nigerian Citizenship. Although clause 4b touched on the issue of marriage and age, it was not the primary focus.
This made it easy for the government to play down the public outcry as many government officials dismissed the accusation that child marriage has been made legal based on the simple fact that the section of the constitution in question was about Citizenship and not marriage.
Secondly, the lack of constitutional knowledge on the part of the civil society meant that the protests’ emphasis was misplaced. WELA (Women Empowerment and Legal Aid Initiative), a women’s rights group in Nigeria, called for the prosecution of Senator Ahmed Yerima but did not make it clear why the Senator should be prosecuted when he had not actually committed any crime. It is important to note that the Senator did not call for an addition to the constitution but wanted the constitution to be left as it is, not amended. Upon close examination of the constitution, it can be argued that child marriage has always been legal in Nigeria even though the Child Rights Act of 2003 forbids marriage under the age of eighteen.
The Second Schedule of the Nigerian Constitution which deals with legislative powers removes the legislation on marriages under Islamic and Customary Law from the government. Thus, any marriage conducted under Islamic of Customary law is not subject to government legislation and the Child Rights Act cannot apply. Furthermore, Section 277 of the Constitution confers upon the Islamic courts any question relating to Islamic marriage.
In light of the provisions of the constitution, Senator Ahmed Yerima has not committed any crime to be prosecuted for. It is evident that there is a provision in the constitution for Islamic marriages which the government cannot legislate upon. This loophole is being used in Nigeria to conduct under-age marriages and a misinterpretation of Islam used to justify it by the likes of Senator Yerima. Moreover, Senator Yerima’s view on marriage under Islamic law is flawed according to a senior Saudi cleric who said that there is no religious reason for child brides in this day and age.
Looking back, the July 2013 protests should have addressed the root of the problem by demanding a review of the flawed constitution. Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act of 2003 which protects the rights of children including girls. The country has also adopted the Protocol to the Africa Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa which integrates international Human Rights instruments which should take pre-eminence over any outlandish interpretation of any religion. However, it seems the country’s constitution is holding it back from putting into practice the instruments, agreements and commitments towards protecting the rights of the girl child. Legal loopholes in the constitution leave room for child marriages and the associated health and social ills.
Child marriage denies girls the right to an education. In Nigeria, it is estimated that over fifty% of girls in the North are married by the age of 16 and are expected to bear children within a year of marriage. A report published by Maryam Uwais of Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative in Nigeria identified that over seventy per cent of young women aged 20 – 29 in Northern Nigeria cannot read or write and this is due to the deprivation of education, a fundamental human right, as a result of early marriage. There are also health problems associated with child marriages, the most common being Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF) which occurs mostly in girls as a result of early childbirth. This health is proven to be serious in Nigeria as the country holds 10% of the worlds’ VVF patients while constituting only 2% of the world’s total population.
Although the protests and activism did not result in the desired change, which would be the enacting of a new law that outlaws ALL marriages with brides under the age of eighteen or a constitutional review/amendment, it opened up the debate around the issue and publicised it. Women’s rights groups now enjoy more support from the public and the citizens have become more informed about the dangers of under-age marriage. This is a small but important step towards the overall aim of outlawing the practice in the country, particularly in the North.
Adedamola Nadi is a Africa researcher at Liberation