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Published On: Thu, Jan 15th, 2015

Early marriage: A misunderstanding of Nigerian constitution

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By Maryam Yahya

It is unfortunate that even when some of us are unfamiliar with the Nigerian Constitution as regards early marriage and related issues, some uninformed minds still go out treading banters of noises; unveiling their ignorance and belittling themselves on the pages of media all in the name of ‘activism’. ‘pseudo activism’ I call it. Out of prejudice, some are even calling for Senator Yarima’s head as they see him as the arrowhead of the proponents of the retention of the ‘clause’ – they also want him executed for allegedly marrying a 13-year-old Egyptian girl… And we couldn’t wait to identify with the motives on why the Nigeria’s Upper Chamber of Parliament itself refuses to reverse a stand to retain the controversial section 29(4) of the 1999 constitution before we air our scruffy views but went on with all forms of obnoxious attacks as usual. What pleasure do we drive in the process of insulting the sensibilities of others only because we share different theological ideologies with them? What an unrealistic community where the minds of citizens are cemented with insalubrious sentiments. Nigerians, we have a very long way to go.

Before any other thing, we must recognise that section 29 of the constitution has absolutely nothing to do with ‘child-marriage’; rather, the section in question is about ‘renunciation of citizenship’. The said section reads: “29: (1) Any citizen of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner of 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 is the declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or in his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public service. (4) For the purpose of subsection (1) of this section.

‘Full age’ means the age of eighteen years and above. Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” At this instant, let us exceptionally note that section 29(4)[a] of the constitution identifies ‘full age’ to mean eighteen years and above whilst in recognition to early marriage, section 29(4)[b] states that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” On noticing that citizenship has no bearing on gender, the Constitution Review Committee of the Senate recommended that section 29(4)[b] of the constitution be deleted. Senator Yarima’s crime is his contribution to the debate on the issue where he argued against the removal of the clause on the ground that it is against the religion of Islam. On convincing the senate, the members had no option than to rightly proceed and vote against the recommendation that the controversial clause be deleted which they did. It sounds absurd to think that it was Senator Yarima who sponsored the bill as some supposed activists misinterpreted the whole thing.

The crux of the matter is that this particular provision has been in the constitution since 1979; Senator Yarima is only against its removal. I’m not surprised that some of us don’t know that the Nigerian Constitution recognises three systems of justice: ‘the shari’a law, the common law and the customary law – and makes ample provisions to protect adherents of religions – Islam, Christianity and Traditional religions.’ I think that is what perceptibly put the Upper Chamber in the eye of the storm. Now let us place some senses in us, I quite agree with Elder Obawusi Obafemi’s take in some ways, “At the end of the day, this underage marriage law is aimed at the talakawa (the poor) which is a way of perpetuating generational backwardness of this class of Nigerians in the north. Denying the female child the faculties to develop into a full independent adult retards this individual’s social worth, income and of course skills. In addition, this child-bride goes on to bear children, a child raising another child in brutal poverty with the savage gender barriers in an oppressively subterranean environment would only result in a distorted by-product: generational poverty.”

I’m not swayed here because it’s wrong to believe that education ends when marriage begins for there are thousands of women who got their first, second and even third degrees while in their matrimonial homes. To be candid with you, early marriage is a global scourge; there is no place in the world at some time where the practice of early marriage was wholly deserted. Using the societal glitch of ‘poor health, early death and lack of educational opportunities’ as a reason for condemning early marriage is all about fixing the mirror, not fixing the reflections Nigerians see in the mirrow. Is it not sheer lunacy for one to agree to sex a girl below eighteen and disagree to marry off a girl of same age? How many cases of unwanted pregnancy at early age as 13, 14 and 15 without proper marriage has the society witnessed? What about rape cases; how many minors have been raped in recent times?

I sense that every African knows the importance placed upon virginity. I equally need not to remind anyone that relationship (sex) outside marriage is neither encouraged in Islam nor in Christianity. In African culture, it’s both shameful and reprehensible. It will be insane to know all these and keep quite over this gobbledygook they tie to the concept ‘freedom’. It was same-sex marriage and now ‘early prostitution’ who knows whether they would legalise incest tomorrow. Whatever… tell them that we say that we will not allow them to sentence us to eternal sorrows; and for the apostates they have triumphed over, ‘sutafimunyafemususu’. To the antagonists of the law which legalises early marriage, “but can we prevent early marriage by just enacting laws? I don’t think so. Social reformers across the globe have acknowledged the limits of law in controlling cultural practices that are embedded in peoples way of life. I think law by itself cannot solve the problem of child marriage without removing the underlying causes.

There are many countries that have adopted laws regulating the age of marriage, but child marriage is still prevalent. It’s hard to enforce laws on age of marriage in a country where births and deaths are not registered. It’s hard to enforce laws on age of marriage in a country where majority of the marriages are conducted informally. It’s hard to enforce laws on age of marriage in a country where parents cannot afford to send their children to school as an alternative to early marriage – either the schools are not girl friendly or because they cannot afford the cost… we must end not only child marriage, but also child sexual exploitation that has become common in our schools and streets.’’ I think instead of wasting our precious time discussing ‘early marriage’, ‘early prostitution’ banters at this stage, let us step up a campaign on how to eradicate abject poverty, educate and empower women and provide them with economic activities. We must all re-examine ourselves!!

Maryam Yahya via


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