The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Everyone can agree that child marriage plagues many developed and developing countries but there are few solutions to end the practice.

The incidence of child marriage in Nigeria presents a complex tapestry of cultural, economic, and legal challenges. It remains a persistent human rights violation that predominantly affects girls, infringing on their autonomy and subjecting them to practices that endorse abuse under the pretext of culture, honor, and tradition.

A particularly alarming case emerged from the Akeddei community in Sagbama, where authorities intervened following reports of a nuptial arrangement involving a 4-year-old girl and a 54-year-old man. This incident, occurring late last year, prompted the Bayelsa State Government to take decisive action. Their commitment to rescuing the child was articulated in a public statement, showcasing a proactive stance against such human rights abuses.

This intervention by state authorities and non-governmental organizations is commendable and signals a progressive move towards safeguarding children against the detrimental impacts of early marriage. However, the singular act of intervention, while vital, is insufficient.

A broader, more systemic approach is necessary to eradicate the foundational causes of child marriage. It requires a concerted effort to transform societal norms, bolster educational opportunities for girls, and enforce legislation that protects minors from being wed prematurely. Only through such comprehensive measures can we hope to dismantle the structures that perpetuate child marriage and truly safeguard the future of children in Nigeria and beyond.

The fight against child marriage in Nigeria, despite the enactment of the Child Rights Act over twenty years ago, reveals a profound disconnect between legislative intent and actual enforcement. The stubborn persistence of this issue highlights a critical need for rigorous law enforcement, coupled with a societal transformation that places the rights and well-being of young girls at the forefront of national priorities.

Tragically, the practice of child marriage continues unabated, particularly in Nigeria’s northern regions. According to the advocacy group Girls Not Brides, 30.3% of Nigerian girls are wed before turning 18, with 12.3% married by the age of 15. The phenomenon is especially prevalent in the Northwest and Northeast, where over half of the women are married before their 18th birthday.

UNICEF reports a decline in child marriage globally over the past decade; however, the practice remains alarmingly common. Currently, one in five girls worldwide is married in childhood. This statistic prompts the question: Is the end of child marriage achievable within the near future? Despite progress made on an international scale, the pace of reduction is not on track to meet the goal of eradicating child marriage by 2030. This underscores an urgent need for intensified efforts and innovative strategies to accelerate change and protect the rights of girls globally.

“Despite a steady decline in this harmful practice over the past decade, child marriage remains widespread, with approximately one in five girls married in childhood across the globe. Today, multiple crises – including conflict, climate shocks, and the ongoing fallout from COVID-19 – are threatening to reverse progress toward eliminating this human rights violation…Child marriage is often the result of entrenched gender inequality, making girls disproportionately affected by the practice. Globally, the prevalence of child marriage among boys is just one-sixth that among girls. Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and threatens their well-being. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services,” the authors of the report write.

Child marriage, a critical issue globally, is sustained by a constellation of underlying factors. According to Girls Not Brides, these include entrenched gender inequality, which perpetuates the notion of female inferiority, pervasive poverty, inadequate education, political and economic alliances, and deeply rooted religious and cultural norms.

Girls are frequently married off to alleviate economic strain on their families, effectively traded to bolster familial wealth or status through political and economic alliances. Such marriages are often strategized to secure or enhance social standing, aligning with affluent families or influential business entities. Additionally, religious and cultural mores substantially influence this practice, often dictating or justifying the early union of young girls.

The repercussions of child marriage are severe and far-reaching. It disrupts the educational trajectory of young girls, severely limiting their future prospects and cementing the cycle of poverty. Health risks escalate, particularly due to pregnancy and childbirth complications at a young age. The emotional and psychological toll is also considerable, as child brides grapple with the premature assumption of adult roles and responsibilities. Beyond the individual impact, child marriage systematically enforces gender inequality by denying girls the opportunity to realize their full potential and contribute meaningfully to societal progress.

Human Rights Watch underscores the profound and enduring effects of child marriage on women, which reverberate throughout their lives. It robs them of agency, hampers their education, exposes them to violence and discrimination, and obstructs their participation in economic, political, and social spheres.

Tackling child marriage necessitates a comprehensive strategy. Education is fundamental, as it provides girls with the opportunity for quality learning experiences, equipping them to make enlightened decisions. Campaigns to raise community awareness can confront and transform destructive norms and traditions, cultivating a supportive climate for reform. Reinforcing legal structures and their enforcement is also critical, ensuring accountability for those engaged in child marriages.

Ultimately, enhancing the economic stability of families can diminish the incentive for early marriage. An integrated approach, involving the collaborative efforts of governments, communities, and non-governmental organizations, is vital to address this multifaceted challenge with the effectiveness it demands.

Yusuf Baba Hammed is studying at Federal Polytechnic in Offa, Kwara State.