By - Adedoyin Shittu
In the Nigerian Constitution, once a girl is married, she is considered to be “of age” and can be addressed as a woman, even if she is just 12 years old.
Marriage does not automatically make a girl a woman but a woman is made, both physiologically and psychologically. In Marriage, a woman is expected to look after her husband sexually and physically, sometimes look after her in-laws, take care of the home and bear children almost immediately for the husband in this part of the world, among other things. It is baffling how one will expect a child to fit into any of this role in this 21st century.
According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of child brides in the world – 3,538,000, making it the 11th highest prevalence rate of child marriage globally. 44% of girls in Nigeria are married before their 18th birthday and 18% are married before the age of 15. Most of these underage marriages is prevalent in the North East and North West States in the country due to the religion backdrop, poverty and traditional custom. It can never be over-flogged that child marriage is a violation of human rights, young girls drop out of school and are forced into marrying an older person who they do not love and in most cases, more than twice their age. This is a violation of international laws and conventions on women’s rights, sadly they are forced to immediately assume the adult role without any prior preparation.
Child marriage not only decreases a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, it also interrupts her education, exposes her to life threatening illnesses , limit her opportunities for career and vocational advancement, and place her at increased risk of domestic violence.
Basira, 15, sat on the ground in front of her mud house to breastfeed her nine-month-old baby.
She lives with her husband in Yamawa, a village filled with mud houses in Kano State.
She was barely 12 years old when her parents married her off to her husband, whom she said was in his late 40s.
“I have been living with the man for the past three years. My parents brought me to my husband’s house when I was only 12,” Basira said in Hausa.
“I dropped out of school when I was in Primary 3 and ever since then, I have not gone back to any school,” she said.
It is without doubt that Basira is not physically, physiologically and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing at such a tender age, but this is what 60% of the population of girls face in the Northern part of Nigeria and this does not come without its implications.
Health implication of child marriage
Some of the key ailments child brides are exposed to include vesico-vaginal Fistula (VVF), anaemia, high blood pressure (HBP), premature birth, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), postpartum depression (PPD), and even suicide
Once a girl reaches puberty and starts to menstruate, she is capable of getting pregnant but her body is not yet physically ready for bearing a child and giving birth to a child. The girl still has about 4% of her height to gain and the pelvis which is a pivotal part in pregnancy and child delivery will only be 82-88% of its fully grown width. As a result of this, girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. In fact, findings reveals that the rate of death of the married girls aged between 15-19 years is twice as compared to girls who marry after the age of 20. As their bodies been immature is affected when birthing a child. Globally, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls aged between 15 to 19.
According to UNICEF, there is a 60% chance that an infant born to a girl married before 18 years dies compared to that born by a mother older than 19 years but even if the child survives, there are more chances that the baby will have low birth weight or is weaker both physiological and psychological.
“Fawziya Ammodi was a beautiful young girl, whose life came to a torturous end when she was forced into marriage with an elderly man. She became with child almost immediately and bore the complications pregnancy put on her very small frame. During childbirth, Fawziya went into brutal labor and suffered for three days straight. Together with her baby, she died of severe bleeding and shock. Fawziya was 11 when she was given out in marriage and 12 years old when she died.”
Early childbearing can lead to serious health problems, such as obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula is a childbirth complication due to obstructed labour when the tissues between a woman’s vagina and her bladder or rectum are damaged from the continuous pressure from the baby’s head stuck in the birth canal. The dead tissue falls off resulting in a hole through which the woman continuously leaks urine or faeces or sometimes both. In most cases, the leakages ostracise the child bride and results in desertion by the husband, family and friends, leaving the girl’s mother to look after her and her children. The smell oozing out of the patient is so unbearable that sometimes, she is consigned to a hut far from the house, sometimes having access to others only when food is passed to her, in some cases, using a shovel to maintain distance.
Obstetric fistula happens as a result of the tiny pelvic which is the birth canal, it might also arise if the baby is too big for the birth canal or the position of the head make it difficult for the baby to be born. Over time, it leads to chronic medical problems like frequent infections, kidney disease and infertility. The risk of obstetric fistula in young girls below 15 years is as high as 88% because their bones are not ready for child bearing and delivery.
Hadiza, a 16 year-old who was married to her uncle at 9, pregnant at 12 and developed an obstetric fistula after prolonged labour and her baby’s death.. Hadiza is recovering from her 4th fistula surgery and lives in hope that she will be “dry” again.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) is also common among child brides. This is expected because of the high level of polygamy in the north, child brides married to older men usually have other co-wives. Sometimes it might not be because of polygamy but the age difference between them that causes the infection. Girls who marry early and young especially older men with a great difference in age remain vulnerable and powerless in the marriages. This gives the man leverage in the union to have numerous sex partners. They cannot ask their husband to take a HIV test nor can they abstain from intercourse or ask the husband to use a condom despite his promiscuity. This renders them biologically vulnerable and socially unequal, thereby making them prone to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Cervical cancer is also a leading cause of death among child brides, 50% of cervical cancer patients are those who get married before the age of 20 years.
Economic Implication of Child marriage
In an interview organised by BBC in 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari was asked why his wife, Aisha, questioned his leadership in the country. The Associated Press reported that he laughed it off and said: “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”
This only shows the value given to a girl child in this part of the world. Sadly that interview was a joint press briefing with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, another woman.
A girl from Northern Nigeria is likely to marry at age 15 as against her counterpart at age 20 in the south. To get married, she drops her education pursuit to fit into the role of a wife and she will begin to nurse children nonstop all her life. This limits her access to economic or professional opportunities and confines her only to the domestic sphere thereby making her economically useless but only a headcount to the country. Report says that ending child marriage could generate $7.6 billion per annum in Nigeria.
According to UN report, only 2% of married girls in Nigeria go to school, compared with 69% of unmarried girls. Some 73% of married girls received no schooling, and three out of four cannot read at all.
Furthering of education and entrepreneurship even after child birth is almost impossible for these girls who have to depend on their husbands for everything almost for the rest of their lives.
The saying that says, “Educate a girl child, you educate a generation” is absolutely correct, poverty thrives in the northern part of the country because girl education has been neglected for child marriage. In the North East and North West area of the country, more than half the population of girl children are not in school for the basic primary education despite being free for them. A girl that starts child bearing at the age of 15 is highly fertile and this will likely lead to ‘excess births’. This is why poverty is thriving in the north. The population growth as a result of child marriage does not mirror the economic growth at all. It has also been observed that uneducated and stressed mothers fail to educate their children on basic level and are not even able to make contribution towards their children studies, this makes it hard for children to get the adequate skills and education needed to break out of the poverty cycle. This is why youths and children from the northern part of the country are prone to indoctrination and radicalization by militant groups who adopt them and stand in place of parents.
Various studies have shown that a woman’s education beyond primary school is a reliable route to economic empowerment and long term changes in the status quo, as well as determinants of a family’s health and nutrition. Child brides are less likely to participate in politics and community affairs, leaving them disenfranchised from their society.
Maimuna still bore the scars of a short but brutal marriage of less than a year. When she ran away, her battered face swelled so much that doctors feared that her husband had dislocated her jaw. Her back and arms were disfigured by angry welts from the whipping her father gave her for fleeing to him. She was married at 13 and ran away at 14.
Maimuna said she begged her father to let her stay in school. She had always been a good daughter, obedient, hard-working and popular with her friends but he married her off to his best friend’s son, who was 27 at the time for a dowry of $210.
Nobody prepared Maimuna for the marriage bed. There was no advice, no warning of what to expect, even from her married friends. Every day she was exhausted, and when she finally got to bed, her husband wanted to “bother” her, she says.
Maimuna’s former husband, Mahammadu Saidu, blamed her few years of school for her “disobedience” and he does not deny beating his wife. “She had too much ABCD,” he says. “Too much ABCD.”
Saidu says that he has known Maimuna all his life, and waited years for her to reach what he considers marriageable age. “We were always meant to be together.” Saidu says he promised Maimuna she could carry on going to school. But he also worried so he relegated on the promise. “If she is educated, she will be looking down on me because I didn’t go to school, so she will be the husband and I will be the wife,” he says.
Maimuna grew up on the outskirts of Kaduna, in a half-finished brick building on the edge of a middle-class suburb. Her father, a farmer called Haruna Abdullahi, picks up a stone and throws it at a stray dog. At 45, he’s been married for 30 years and has fathered eight children. “It’s our culture to give our girls in marriage,” he says. “From the age of 12, a girl can go to her husband’s house.”
His wife, Rabi Abdullahi, nods, and asks her husband’s permission before talking. She too was a child when she married, although she does not know exactly how old.
“It is our way of life,” she says. “In my day, a bride would never dare to run away.”
She insists that her husband is not a cruel man, pointing to a well he built so she did not need to walk more than a mile to collect water.
After Maimuna ran away, her husband waited the customary three months to make sure there was no baby. Then he divorced her, as a husband can do under sharia by declaring the divorce aloud three times. He only informed her parents of the divorce in a letter.
Saidu says he no longer cares for Maimuna and will move ahead with his life. “This time I will marry a girl of 12, so that she will do what I want to do,” he says. “Because if you marry a girl who is older, then she will not listen to you.”
In a similar fashion, Senator Yerima divorced his wife at the age of 17 while she was caring for their baby in order to accommodate his Egyptian bride. This is a girl he married at the age of 15 after encouraging her to drop out of school.
Maimuna and senator Yerima ex child bride are one of thousands of divorced girls in Nigeria, children who were forced into marriage and have since run away or been thrown out by their husbands. There are no official numbers for just how many of these girls get divorced, but they often end up destitute and shunned by their families.
Social Implication of Child marriage
The younger the bride, the larger the age difference between her and her husband and the more her level of powerlessness. Women in northern Nigeria cannot take decisions independent of their husbands even when it concerns their body, they need the permission and the financial assistance of their husband, because they are economically handicapped and socially intimidated by the husband.
In the area of family planning, which directly affects the girl, she is not capable to decide for herself. In a study, it was revealed that only 6.3% of the women in the north has access to family planning. There is because most times there husband do not approve of it. To visit a family planning clinic in many areas in the north, you should be accompanied by your husband and almost all husbands kick against effective contraceptive methods such as pills, injectable, implants, sterilization, the IUD, diaphragm or condom. In fact, it is a taboo to most of them who believe that Allah is the giver of children and they can give birth to as many as God would give them. They may not even be able to seek medical care even when they are sick because they need permission of the husband who foots the bill.
Elham Mahdi al Assi was a young girl with great plans for her future. Those plans came to a cruel end when she married a man who would later become her murderer. One day after her marriage, Elham was taken to hospital due to excessive bleeding. The doctor who examined her saw that her internal canal was ripped and asked for her to be admitted. Her husband refused to adhere to the doctor’s advice and insisted in taking his wife home.
“Two days later he brought a motionless Elham back to the doctor in an emergency. Shortly thereafter, the doctor pronounced her dead from severe hemorrhaging resulting from the rupture of internal organs caused from intimacy with her husband… Elham Mahdi Al Assi was 12 years old at the time she was married off and 12 when she died.”
For girls whose bodies is not ripe enough for safe sexual intercourse, unavoidable sexual relations with their husbands can be traumatic. Usually sex in such type of relationships is not built upon consent but forced upon the girl and that constitutes rape. Many do not believe that rape can happen even in marriage. This results in sexual, physical and psychological harm and suffering for such girls.
Marriage relationship between a grown man and a child is not on equal footing and balance both physically, mentally and psychologically, this thereby increases the risk that the child bride will be subjected to domestic violence emotionally, verbally and/or physically by her husband, or by her husbandʼs family.
Domestic violence is also common in child marriage as they are often degraded and looked down upon by their husbands. In some cases, after being beaten by the husband, they are sent back to the parents. This kind of treatment makes the victim lose self respect and can also lead to psychological shock. Some are treated like properties and are not permitted to have friends or go back to their parents despite the ill treatment meted on them. They are locked up in the house like a furniture for the rest of their lives.
Early married girls are at higher risk of psychological disorders as these girls have been denied their freedom of choice and will be denied the right to freely express their views and the right to be defended against devastating traditional practices. This will in turn increase their chances of a lifetime of psychiatric disorders such as timidness and depression because they have little control over their lives and total well-being.
According to Justine Greening, the UK Secretary for International Development, “When a girl cannot decide for herself when to marry and have children, it’s not just a tragedy for her, it’s a disaster for development”. Nothing is more pleasing than getting married at the right time and with your chosen person, unfortunately child marriage denies a person that satisfaction. If not every girl, most girls associate marriage with love and romance, a fairy tale ending but being a child bride is a hellish nightmare.
A 14-year old bride, Wasila Umaru allegedly killed her 35 year-old groom, Umaru Sani and three other persons in Kano with a rat poison which she poured in their meal. Her husband and three of his friends were said to have eaten the poisonous food without suspecting anything.
The three out of the four of them died on the spot, while the fourth person, a female later died at the hospital she was rushed to.
The suspect, Wosila Umaru confessed to the act claiming that her reason for committing the crime was because she was forced to marry a man she didn’t love.
Worldwide, child marriage is recognised as a blatant violation of Fundamental Human Right and causes untold suffering to the victims. There must be free and full consent to the choice and time of marriage. With limited education and economic opportunities, child brides are often condemned to a life of poverty, social isolation, and powerlessness, infringing on their human rights, health, and well-being.
Child Marriage not only robs millions of girls of their childhood, their rights and their dignity, it robs the society of potential scientists, lawyers, humanitarians, teachers, engineers, politicians and experts in every field and this barbaric act should be abolish if the society want to make any meaningful progress.
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