By - Isaac Joseph
Child marriage, a perennial issue, which has eaten deep into the fabrics of continents like Africa still remains a cause for concern. Despite the labeling of child marriage as a violation of fundamental human rights irrespective of the gender involved, it saddens the heart that its practices remain prevalent in Africa. The International Women Health Coalition describes ‘child marriage to mean marriages that take place before the age of 18 and even occurs much earlier for many girls.’
According to UNICEF, “Child marriage is a human rights violation taking place on a vast scale in West and Central Africa which disproportionately affect girls. Girls who marry young often drop out of school and face physical risks, especially during pregnancy. Due to the social, health and economic impacts of child marriage, the practice is a major obstacle to sustainable development.” It would then be rational to conclude that Africa is still on a far quest to attain sustainability in terms of development as a result of the consequences emanating from the practicing of child marriage.
Child Marriage in Balaraba Yakubu’s “Who Will Marry An Illiterate Woman”
This book is written in Hausa language and titled Wa Zai Auri Jahila. Balaraba draws from her experience of being a child bride at the tender age of 12. She narrates the ordeals of a young girl, Abu, who was forced out of school after the insistence of her Qur’anic teacher, who advised her father that it was not appropriate for a girl of her age to be found in public. Abu’s father had no choice than to seek a suitable suitor for his child. Abu’s cousin, Ahmadu was the viable option as she had been promised to him for years. Unfortunately, Ahmadu, who was studying in the university in Kano was not willing to marry Abu, a girl he considers illiterate and backward. This was obviously due to his exposure to city girls and city life.
The situation became complex until a local aristocrat, the potbellied, red-eyed fifty-two year old Sarkin Noma plotted to marry Abu, even before seeing her as a way to subdue his three other ‘fighting’ wives. Abu’s father, still pained by the rejection of his daughter by Ahmadu, decided to forcefully marry off Abu to this old man despite her strong resistance to the arranged marriage. Abu faced a lot of hardships such as brutal rape, as a child bride from the hands of the old man, Sarkin Noma. The challenges became too much for her to bear that she fled to Kano to start a new life for herself. Her maturity and knowledge increased; she later enrolled in adult education classes where she trained to become a teacher and later a nurse. This self-improvement had positive significant effect in Abu’s life while Sarkin Noma grows old and became impotent. Later on, other men in the novel learnt to respect their female companions in a quest for sweeter lives except for the old Sarkin Noma who remained dogmatic. The real question, from the novel is not “Who will marry an Illiterate Woman?” but rather “Who is good enough to marry an Educated Woman?”
The novel exposes the dangers of child marriage and the deprivation of their rights which would have invariably contributed to the development of the society. Various statistics have shown that the practice of child marriage in Africa, and by extension globally, is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the UN, 37,000 girls under the age of 18 are married each day. And currently, we now have the greatest number of married girls and girls at-risk of child marriage than ever before. 1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married before 18; 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. With this current trend, more than 140 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the next decade. Astonishingly, almost 400 million women now aged 20-49 were married before the age of 18 globally. With these unenviable statistics, sustainable development in Africa, which forms a major base for the practice of child marriage, is unrealistic if this practice is not immediately addressed. In addressing the issue of child marriage in Africa, it is pertinent to note the propelling forces behind its practice.
Faith as a Propellant of Child Marriage in Africa
Over the years, different religions had form a core for our socialization in Africa and some of its tenets are being strictly adhered to by their faithfuls. For instance, the Islamic law states that if a girl passes puberty, she is allowed to be married. What remains bothersome is the definition of ‘puberty’ as the holy book did not categorically state. This gives people like Sarkin Noma (a character in the book), a leverage to marry the young child, Abu. In 2010, a Nigerian senator, Ahmad Yerima married a 13 year-old Egyptian girl, the daughter of his chauffeur, after allegedly paying a dowry of $100 000. Despite the marriage being a contravention of Section 21 of the Child Rights Act, Yerima justified the marriage on religious grounds stating clearly that:
“Prophet Muhammad (SAW) married Aisha at the age of nine. Therefore, any Muslim who marries a girl of nine years and above is following the teaching and practices of prophet Muhammad (SAW). If there is anybody who will tell me that what you did contradicts Islam, I will say I will submit, and I will do whatever they ask me to do.”
As expected, a lot of outcries followed Yerima’s marriage to this young child but from his argument and justification of his actions, our outcries seems to be overridden by his faith. And this is supported by the Nigerian constitution in section 38(1) which clearly states that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” While Yerima’s actions and others who engage in child marriage might be condemnable under different child rights laws, they have a backing from the religious point of view and ironically, the constitution gives them a legal backing in the practices of their faiths, as the case is in Nigeria. In a swift reaction, the then Attorney General of the Federation in Nigeria, Mohammed Bello Adoke stated that Ahmad Yerima could not be prosecuted because his marriage to the young child was contracted under Islamic law.
As sensitive as the issue of religion is in our world today, it is rather surprising that we are not sensitive to the major trends that has since enveloped our society such as the growing momentum for ending child marriage, including the African Union member states’ endorsement of an ‘African Common Position to End Child Marriage’ and the ‘Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa.’
Child Marriage in Africa – A Case for Morals
The initiative #GirlsNotBrides rightly stated some consequences of child marriage that ‘child brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. They face more risks of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.’ With the aforementioned implications of child marriage, it becomes worrisome to see people engage in child marriage. Every rational thinking man should be aware of the difficulties child brides/grooms face. Beyond our faiths, it is expedient to be mindful of the harms caused to others by our actions and inactions. Child marriage is causing more harm than good, if at all there is any good in it. Taking a child’s childhood is sheer wickedness and should not be encouraged. The freedom to exercise our faith practices must not erode our thinking faculty.
Ending Child Marriage in Africa
For a sustainable development in Africa, there has to be an end to child marriage. Several bodies and individuals have come up with practicable solutions to child marriage and they include: The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which highlighted five strategies to delay or prevent child marriage and they include: empowering girls with information, skills and support networks; providing economic support and incentives to girls and their families; educating and rallying parents and community members; enhancing girls’ access to a high-quality education; and encouraging supportive laws and policies. Also, Nour (2006) stated that ending child marriage requires a multifaceted approach focused on the girls, their families, the community, and the government. Culturally appropriate programs that provide families and communities with education and reproductive health services can help stop child marriage, early pregnancies, and illness and death in young mothers and their children.
While it would be totally unfair to discard faith principles on the grounds of morality, it is equally unacceptable to uphold faith principles against the backdrop of morality. Child marriage remains an issue where there should be no compromise. We should simply #RaiseTheAge!
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