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Ending child marriage

It is cheering news that Nigeria has signed up to the campaign to end child marriage, thereby becoming the 16th country on the continent to join the campaign by the African Union. At an impressive event in Abuja on Tuesday, November 29, the Federal Government, in collaboration with the United Nations office in the country, the Canadian government, religious leaders, traditional rulers and other stakeholders called for an end to the harmful practice.

That there is this level of collaboration among local and international entities shows the seriousness of the problem and the concerted efforts required to solve it. This is just as well. As Vice President Yemi Osinbajo observed at the occasion, Nigeria has made notable advancement in ending the phenomenon of child marriage through the enactment of the Child Rights Act. The fact that only 24 states out of 36 have domesticated it indicates that there is still a long way to go, if the country is to achieve appreciable progress in ending the odious tradition.

To put the matter in sharper perspective, not even all the 24 states that have domesticated the Child Rights Act are committed to its enforcement. Contrary to what many would want to think, the problem goes far beyond the Northern regions of this country where the practice is more prevalent. In those parts, because of the dominance of the Islamic religion and the provisions in the Sharia for marriage, there is an unwitting resistance to the enforcement of the Child Rights Act which puts the age of maturity for the Girl Child at18.

It will be misleading to think that the problem is only in the North. It is, indeed, nationwide, especially in the rural and remote areas of the country, where civilisation and government are far removed. No wonder, then, that there is a correlation between the problem of child marriage and poverty. Recent studies show that the problem is highest in West and Central Africa.

This connection should interest us all. Why is the problem of child marriage not as high in North Africa which ordinarily should have a higher number of Muslim adherents than the two sub-regions that have been singled out as having a higher preponderance? What this suggests is that beyond the Islamic practice, what promotes child marriage more is poverty and the failure of political actors to put an end to it. Parents, buffeted by extreme want and hunger, give out their young female child in early marriage, not minding what the law and religion they adhere to says. The girl child too could be attracted to early marriage, regarding it as a   bulwark against hunger and neglect.

It is an irony that it hardly ever turns out so. In reality, child brides are subject to all kinds of physical and psychological abuses, leaving them worse off than they entered the marriages. The incidence of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula (VVF) is directly traceable to child marriages. Apart from this health challenge, you wonder how a child bride can properly raise and support her babies. This problem must be seen, therefore, as one that is fundamental to the failure of the family structure in the country.

This is why government and, indeed, all relevant stakeholders must approach the problem with the two key tools of persuasion and enforcement. First, we call on the remaining 12 states which have not domesticated the Child Rights Act to immediately do so. There must be a legal framework across the country to call the problem of child marriage by its proper name.

More importantly, government working with all elements in the society so persuaded, must persuade the many who still engage in the backward practice to abandon it. Education is going to be very useful in achieving this. Parents and children, too, should be taught the many negative implications of child marriages. Government should complement these efforts by engaging in enlightenment campaigns which should get to the rural areas where they are most needed. When the parents and children see the damage that they can cause themselves through these campaigns, chances are that they will be persuaded to abandon the unhelpful practice.

Above all, government must work very hard to eliminate the cause of the malaise—poverty. It is very difficult to persuade those who see child marriage as the only route out of poverty not to engage in it. The elimination of want, hunger and disease from our society is a task that the government and all others concerned must take very seriously.

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