Dear Nigeria, we really need to do better for the girl child

Sometimes I disconnect from current issues because I feel powerless at all the debauchery going on, especially in Nigeria. It was the International day of the girl child only a few days ago but the truth is that we have such a long way to go in according the right value to girls and women.

Going through my Twitter feed, I came across the link to a Bella Naija story currently making the rounds. Apparently, the Emir of Katsina state is alleged to have abducted a fourteen year old girl and forced her into marriage. The Emir is at least fifty years her senior.

Please let’s process that for a second. It doesn’t matter if he was eighteen or twenty because it would still be wrong. But, for someone who is old enough to be her grandfather, it makes it even more appalling. And yet, he is supposed to be a leader who should set precedence helping his people to do better.

Just like in Ese Oruru‘s case, it is alleged that the girl Habiba Isiyaku was abducted and forced to convert to another religion, Islam.

#ChildNotBride Campaign

Apparently, the Katsina Emirate Council considers the marriage irreversible. It was reported that the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has tried to intervene in this case after the girl’s parents cried foul. He condemned the action and appealed to the Emir also stating that in his own religion, a girl could not be given out in marriage without her parents’ consent.

But can we not make this about religion?

Because that would be problematic. This is not a Christian or Muslim polity. We are governed by constitutional laws, no? The legal framework I believe comes from a humanitarian perspective. At fourteen years, she is considered a minor and CANNOT consent to marriage. Child marriages must be abolished and the Nigerian senate needs to take a stronger stance towards this. What’s more, the judiciary must begin to enforce the law in this regard.

This should be an imprisonable offence.

No one should be above the law either. We need to send a strong message throughout our great nation that we as the Nigerian state, do not condone child marriages. In many constitutions, this is regarded to as statutory rape.

Let’s also recognise the fact that several crimes have allegedly been committed here. Abduction, domestic violence (because emotional abuse), statutory rape (assuming the ‘marriage’ has been consummated). Let’s outlaw this societal scourge and demand the highest penalty for the offender. If we continue to shout tradition or religion, we will go nowhere.

Nigeria please, we really need to do better for the girl child. Every one of us is Ese Oruru, and Habiba Isiyaku, and the Chibok girls. We want unfettered access to education, right to adulthood, right to healthcare, right to economic opportunities.

Is the law keeping young African women safe from sexual violence?

Child Bride

It may be 2016, but young Nigerian girls are still being exploited by those who should be protecting them. I’m referring to the father figures, lawmakers, community leaders and even some parents. Only recently, the internet and media went into a frenzy over the notion that the age of consent had been lowered from 18 to 11.

The reason for this confusion? A bunch of subsections under Section 7 of the Sexual Offences Bill postulating penalties for sexual penetration in girls under the ages of 11, 15 and 18. We’re all still asking ourselves why the need to highlight these three ages rather than the relevant one which is 18. This is of major concern as concerns two main areas: child marriages and rape.

Child Brides in Africa

Source: BBC Africa

UNICEF reports that Nigeria is the country with the highest number of child brides across Africa. The number of child brides across Africa is expected to almost triple by the year 2050. It’s been almost 2 years now since the world has been fighting for the return of the Chibok girls following the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Sadly, at this time, we are still waiting and hoping that they are rescued.

Ese’s story

Most people have been following the story of 14-year-old Ese Oruru who was abducted from her base by a man who took her to the North to become his bride. Reports made by the Bayelsa State Police Command as captured in Punch Newspaper state that her recent kidnapping from her home in Bayelsa to faraway Kano is a case of eloping. It’s almost laughable except that it’s not.

This is a grave issue that affects every one of us regardless of gender. It thus becomes obvious that law enforcement and the rest of the community have failed to catch on that the law does not condone the violation of any woman especially one who is still a child. Ese’s predicament is our predicament and as such statements made by the very institution put in place to install law and order demonstrates our failure as a society.

How on earth does a teenager elope? The fact that such a statement can be made by the police public relations rep confirm to us that child marriages are still very much a thing in this part of the world. This is a practice prevalent in the northern part of the country where matured men take on child brides.

At this point of the century where societies are moving to expel inhumane practices, the reaction to Ese’s case is a prime example of the normalcy of such a practice. Whether or not Ese voluntarily left her base in Bayelsa for a faraway state or was kidnapped / coerced into doing so as certain assertions have been made, the baseline is she is still a minor.

Although it has taken six whole months, the good news is Ese has been handed over to the police for her return to her family in Bayelsa. Just as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been quoted as saying, ‘culture does not make people, people make culture’.

Thus, the mere fact that something is a part of our culture is not a good enough reason to uphold it. There is certainly good culture and bad culture and as humans we are expected to evolve and be progressive.

What are some of the risks?

There are several risks that child brides are faced with including emotional and psychological trauma that may follow them way into adulthood and in fact for the rest of their lives

In addition, if the ‘marriage’ had been consummated underage, pregnancy, Vesicovaginal Fistula and STIs are all common occurrences for child brides.

As a society, where do we go from here?

  • We need to close the gap between the law and its practice through proper information dissemination and sensitization. The Nigerian police force must undertake reorientation programs with the passing of new laws.
  • The law should expressly state the age of consent for sexual intercourse by getting rid of the compounding subsections in the Sexual Offences Bill.
  • It is also not enough that the law prescribe a penalty of 5 years imprisonment or a fine of N500,000 for the perpetrators in child marriages! A part of her life is taken away from her as she is forced to grow up in the worst ways possible. The maximum penalty should be sought for such offenders.

What can we do as women?

As women, each of us has a responsibility to uplift other women especially those who do not have some of the privileges we do have.

  • Speak up about it! Challenge the status quo! Tweet about it, blog about it, discuss with peers, make your voice heard. You may be surprised how little people actually think about this issue.
  • Educate yourselves including other young girls and women. Females need to be aware of the dangers they face and to take extra precaution where necessary.
  • Counsel and encourage one another. As women we need to quit slut shaming and blaming the victim. The guilty party is the aggressor or manipulator. Skimpy clothing or a flirtatious nature do not equal a license to rape.
  • Parents and guardians also need to be receptive enough for their daughters to feel free enough to tell them about any funny business going on.
  • Raise your sons to respect women. Men have as much a part to play as women do in the promotion of gender rights.