By Iwunze Jonathan
Nigeria’s child-brides need saving. Even though it is the 21st century where education and scientific advancements have changed the face of modern society, age-old customs and traditions continue to encourage the practice of child-marriage.
This is the story of Mrs. Silvia Ayapine, now 55. She lives in a small village called Akorshi-Uwe in Bendi 1, located across the mountains in the western part of Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State.
Before she turned 12, Silvia was forced into a marriage. Refusal to get married to a man who was as old as her father could result in her being thrown out of the house. With no formal education, her parents considered investing in her welfare as a liability, thus the decision to get her married off
Half a century after Silva’s case, the situation has not changed for many. Despite the efforts of concerned human rights activists, non-governmental organizations, humanitarian bodies like UNICEF, Save the Children, Amnesty International, UN Women etc., and even the international community, the plague of child-marriage in Nigeria continues to gather momentum.
The story of Nigeria’s child-bride becomes further complicated when one considers the fact that in many parts of the country, the process of menstruation is met with hostility because of age-long taboos and myths. The associated stigma causes fright, confusion, and embarrassment. Unprepared girls feel embarrassed by their first experiences and are likely to develop negative attitudes towards menstruation.
If that is the story of the average woman and girl-child, imagine the experience of the girl-child who was a victim of child-marriage even before menarche (first menstruation experience). Silvia is one of such.
Silvia said, “I did not even know what it meant to be married. My husband had a mistress who he kept in the same house for months. All I cared about was to play with other children of my age under the moonlight till we were exhausted and slept in any corner of the room.”
Since she was still a child there were limitations to what work she could do for her husband and in-laws. She would usually accompany them to the farm, and roast yams over the fire so that the workers could eat after working.
She recalls her first menstrual experience. “I was at the farm with my father in-law assisting with roasting yams when I noticed blood flow out from my private part. I was confused and afraid. So, I ran to my father in-law and told him what I had observed. He asked me, are you sure you are not injured since you play like a boy? I was sure I was not injured and told him so.
“Then he exclaimed, ‘oh my daughter it is time, you are finally ripe!’ I was confused and asked, Papa, what time? He replied, ‘my daughter you will not understand. Go home to your mother in-law but eat some yams before going.”
Eating yams was the last thing on her mind as she burst into tears and ran back home to get explanation from her mother in-law as to what the blood flow meant. Silvia continues, “After explaining what had happened to me in the farm, my mother in-law also exclaimed, ‘oh my daughter it is time, you are ripe!’ That response left me even more confused and devastated.”
That experience left a lasting scar on Silvia who keyed into the popular idea that menstruation was not a topic for public discussion, as she involuntarily took her place amongst millions of women who feel they are lower creatures because of the ‘curse’ of menstruation.
Not long afterward, when she was about 13 years old, she became pregnant. Her labor was a traumatic experience. She recalls, “One sunny afternoon, I was in the kitchen pounding yam and cooking soup when I went into forced labor. Thankfully, my mother in-law was at home and took me to the back of the kitchen where I delivered.
“Because the baby was so big and I was just a child, I had severe tears in my vagina as I struggled to push the baby out. The wounds I sustained took a long time to heal because sexual relations did not cease despite my wounds. My brother in-law was a medical doctor and tried his possible best to treat me.”
Dr Emeka Uwah, a gynecologist and family physician describes Silvia’s experience during childbirth as a medical condition commonly referred to as obstetric fistula.
“In developed parts of the world, a woman with this kind of obstructed labour would be given a caesarean section, but in developing countries this may not be available. Consequently, the pressure of the baby’s head for an abnormally long time on the blood vessels supplying the tissue of the vagina, bladder, urethra and rectum cuts off the supply of oxygen (ischaemia) and leads to the death of the affected tissue (necrosis). The dead tissue then sloughs away, leaving a hole between adjacent organs.”
“It can lead to abnormal continual leakage of the contents of one organ into another organ or to the outside of the body. In this case, the continual leakage of urine and/or faeces,” he concludes.
Silvia also had nipple fissures, a condition where the nipples are irritated, cracked, or sore. Her nipples were mostly bleeding and there was not sufficient milk for the baby to suck. She breastfed the baby anyway since she had no alternatives. She was young and inexperienced, and she was just a child responsible for the life and care of yet another child.
Before she turned 18, Silvia already had three children and two miscarriages. Life was hard as a teenage mother, and she had an irresponsible husband who spent most of his time outside the house chasing after other women, and not providing for her materially.
“One day my father in-law called me and told me that I could return to my family if I wanted to since my husband was irresponsible and had abandoned his responsibilities towards me. He said he could not take me as his wife since I was already married to his son. He did not want me to put my life on hold,” Silvia recalls.
After spending a good part of her childhood and teenage years with a man who kept her as a sex machine for procreational purposes, she was finally free.
She wondered what she would do with her new-found freedom. If she had any goals or dreams to pursue as a child, they died the very day she was sold into this modern form of slavery. Her being deprived of formal education was even more so a greater barrier. In her own eyes, her worth was simply nothing.
Upon returning home, her relatives tried to cajole her into a relationship with another man who had similar traits with her ex-husband. This time however, she was no longer that naïve child who was forced into marriage many years ago. She refused to marry him.
Years later, she got married to a man that she was attracted to, and the union produced four children. Life is not easy, and even though she was not able to achieve her dreams, Silvia refuses to dwell regretfully on the past. Rather, she views her children as her priced possessions and as her life’s accomplishment.
Mrs. Ayapine is forever grateful that she got a chance to be part of the Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion in Nigeria (RUSHPIN) Programme that was facilitated in her community by United Purpose. Issues addressed included breaking the barriers and taboos around menstruation and spreading the word. She now has a renewed determination to give to every girl-child a gift that nobody gave her, the gift of pre-menstrual knowledge, and the gift of recognizing without fear of being shamed, that menstruation is every woman’s pride.
In her community, Silvia also advocates against the practice of child-marriage and takes time to educate anyone who would listen, on the grave dangers of the practice.
In the part of Northern Obanliku is the Becheve communities. Here, the practice of ‘money-marriage’ exists in the Becheve’s 17 communities of Katele, Amana, Ogbakoko, Belinge, Ranch, Ikwette, Imale, Ekor, Kalumo, Yindive, Makambe, Apambu, Belegete, Kajinga, Mangbe, Mbunu and Agusor.
Money-marriage is a custom in which a girl-child is sold out to a man by her parents as a wife in exchange for livestock like goats, farm produce like yams or foodstuffs, or to pay a debt. The practice ensures that once a girl becomes a ‘money wife’, she is considered dead by her family and must not return irrespective of how she is treated by her husband or his relatives.
Upon the death of the man, the woman is given to his next of kin as a wife. And if the ‘money-wife’ dies without a child, her parents are obligated by tradition to give another girl-child as a replacement.
Ruth lost her childhood at 12 years of age. She was married off to an older man in exchange for money. She was enslaved and kept to work on the farms, day in and day out. Raped and beaten, she had two miscarriages.
Her escape came one day while washing cloths by the river. She ran and never returned. She says, “I am angry because he was not my age. How can I as a small child go and marry someone who is over 60 years old”?
At age 20, Ruth is now a mother. Her child’s father is someone she chose and fell for. But in the community, she will always be known as the ‘money-wife’. Something that her child’s father could not cope with, and he left.
Speaking on why she sold her off, Ruth’s mother said, “I sold her because I needed money after the death of my own mother”. Ruth was sold for just N20,000.
Scale of child marriage
According to a 2018 UNICEF’s database of Child Marriage in West and Central Africa, the prevalence of child marriage in West and Central Africa is 41 percent meaning that four out of ten girls and young women, that is nearly 60 million were married before the age of 18.
Africa is home to six of the 10 countries with the highest child marriage prevalence levels in the world, all six of which have a prevalence over 50 percent. Niger has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world at 76 percent, followed by Central African Republic with 68 percent and Chad at 67 percent.
The prevalence of child marriage below the age of 15 years is also very high at 14 percent for the region, with Chad, Central African Republic and Niger all having prevalence rates over 25 percent.
As the most populous country in the region, Nigeria has the highest number of child brides. An estimated 22 million child brides live in Nigeria, which accounts for 40 percent of all child brides in the region. Niger, which has the highest prevalence in the world, has 4.1 million child brides.
Why the practice
Poverty has been identified as a catalyst in the practice of child marriage. Dr. Linda Ayade, wife of the Executive Governor of Cross River State, in an interview with Channels TV agrees with this stance.
Speaking on the prevailing and disturbing tradition of ‘money-marriage’ in communities in Cross River State, Dr. Ayade said, “We are trying to see how to bring them closer to us, we are trying to see how we will provide them with basic amenities.
“We are trying to see how to bring them from that level of poverty to a certain level where they will not begin to go down to those practices to sustain their livelihoods”.
In many parts of Cross River, the girl-child is viewed as an economic burden. Therefore, investing in her education or training is considered an ‘economic waste’, thus, the practice of marrying her off as a child continues. This stance is in part due to poverty, and ignorance of the fact that the girl-child like the boy-child, has a right dignity, to parental care, and protection.
Age-old customs like the one that exists in the Becheve communities that encourages the practice of ‘money-marriage’ even in this modern age also contributes greatly to this form of modern-day slavery.
For the affluent, the ritual of ‘money-marriage’ is seen mostly as a status symbol as it was believed that recognition is earned based on the number of money-wives acquired.
Child Rights Act
Whatever the case, victims of child-marriage in Cross River State like Silvia and Ruth could have been protected by the Child Rights Act (CRA), which Cross River state domesticated in 2009.
Part III Section 21 of the Nigeria Child Rights Act states that “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.”
Also, Part III Section 22, which prohibits the betrothal of children, says, “no parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person.”
A contravention of either Section 21 or Section 22, attracts a fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of five years or both.
Clearly then, their marriages are prohibited under Nigeria’s Child Rights Act (CRA), which bans marriage before the age of 18. But the federal bill is at loggerheads with certain State laws and age-old customs and traditions that encourage the practice.
Till date, about 11 States in Nigeria are yet to domesticate the Child Rights Act citing religion as a factor.
Lending his voice against the practice, Gov Ayade, in a recent event said, “When customs contradict morality, common sense and civilization conflict with our legal systems, then it should stop. Our laws say Nigerians, including a girl-child, have the right to freedom and dignity. Applying force to deprive her of that right is criminal. The Child Rights Act, which Cross River state has domesticated, prohibits it.
“But it is complex dealing with issues of customs and acceptable laws of the country. As a government, we cannot wield the big stick clamping people into jail. The people need education, enlightenment on the evils of these customs and that is where we are focusing on.”
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer and child rights activist opines that “when girls are forced to marry early, it is a deprivation of formal and non-formal education which translates into restrictions on mobility, domestic burdens, the denial of sundry freedoms in respect of survival, development and participation, as well as the loss of adolescent years.
“Indeed, children of young, uneducated mothers are also less likely to attain high levels of education, perpetuating cycles of low literacy and limited livelihood opportunities.”
Child marriage, therefore, ultimately deprives societies of the intellectual and financial/livelihood contributions of girls, and of their offspring.
Many teenage mothers find themselves trapped in a seemingly hopeless state of poverty. Some must deal with the emotional aftermath of rape and violence.
None of this bodes well for the children of teen mothers. Says the book Teen Moms — The Pain and the Promise, babies of teen mothers “tend to have lower birthweight, more childhood illnesses, more infant mortality, poorer medical care, suffer more from hunger and malnourishment; they are exposed to more violence, and have more delayed development than children born to older mothers.”
Indeed, daughters of teen mothers are more likely to become teen moms themselves than are children born to older mothers.
Consequently, SDGs 1 (relating to eradicating poverty), 2 (zero hunger), 3.1 (to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio), remain unattainable goals, if the consequences and implications of child marriage are not confronted.
GirlsnotBrides.org asserts that globally, the number of teen brides is expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2050 if there is no reduction with one in three girls in the developing world married before age 18.
Sustained Implementation of enacted policies that protects the rights of the girl child by ensuring child marriage is a national priority.
Governments should put in place an enabling legal and policy environment to combat child marriage. As part of these efforts, they should invest in the development and implementation of statewide and national strategies, costed action plans and legislation to address child marriage.
Continental and regional bodies such as the African Union, ECOWAS and ECCAS should strengthen their efforts at regional and continental levels to end child marriage in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the AU Agenda 2063. Existing global, regional and national level accountability mechanisms need to be used by countries to monitor progress and accelerate efforts to end child marriage.
These actions are also included in the Dakar Outcome Document from the first-ever High-Level Meeting on Child Marriage that was held in Dakar in October 2017.
Focus on improving the availability of access to education for the girl-child especially in rural areas.
Education is a powerful way to prevent child marriage as girls’ education, is strongly associated with delays in age of marriage and this was further reinforced during the Summit on Education that was held in Dakar in February 2018. Education represents a positive alternative to child marriage.
UNICEF agrees that addressing sexual and reproductive health needs of all young people, including through comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services, can lead to significant reductions in unintended pregnancies. This underscores the importance of investing in quality education – for girls, as well as ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for young people in order to reduce child marriage.
In September 2020, the European Union and United Nations (EU-UN) Spotlight Initiative in collaboration with African Centre For Leadership, Strategy and Development organized a capacity building event in Sankwala and Becheve communities against sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices with a view to bringing to an end the practice of child marriage.
Speaking during the event, His Royal Majesty, Uchua Amos Item, paramount ruler in Obanliku local government area, said “In the case of eliminating money marriage, we started from the roots we have gone from complex to the simplest and we have succeeded. We have made reference to the council legislators to enact a bye-law binding that completely”.
Undoubtedly, effective collaboration with relevant stakeholders at all levels including traditional leaders to implement policies at local levels is key to effectively reach rural dwellers. As traditional leaders as gatekeepers at the community level, they play a vital role in both educating and enforcing local laws that will help to keep the practice of child marriage in check.
Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) education for men and women in rural communities should also be introduced to educate rural dwellers on the ills of poor menstrual practices which births infection and a host of other diseases. The trauma and psychological effects of menarche on the Nigerian child-bride cannot be overemphasized. Provisions should also be made of adequate and affordable sanitary wares for the rural woman.
The plague of the child-bride in the Nigerian state is one matter that deserves serious attention. Pledges and commitments are not enough. The government as a matter of National urgency should devise proven strategies to turning commitments into tangible actions to transform the lives of the girl-child by ending child marriage.
They can do this by building the skills and knowledge of girls at risk of child marriage; supporting households in impoverished suburbs and rural communities with relief aids; strengthening the systems that deliver services (education, health, protection, justice) to adolescent girls; ensuring laws and policies protect and promote adolescent girls’ rights; and generating and using robust data to inform programmes and policies relating to adolescent girls.
Eradicating the plague of child marriage in Nigeria is both possible, and attainable.
Countries such as Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia and Bangladesh, have set a minimum age for marriage as 18, in the acknowledgment that there are serious social, physical and mental health risks associated with child marriages.
As the most populous black Nation on the face of the earth, Nigeria’s over 22 million child-brides deserve a change in their narratives, a chance to grow with dignity, a right to education, and a chance to live as free moral agents without the shackles of this modern-day slavery.
Perhaps Nigeria as the giant of Africa will take a cue from her sister Nations who succeeded in eliminating child marriage.
Iwunze is a WASH, Solutions and Data Photojournalist.