Usman Solo said that child marriage is their “religious belief”. He stated this in reaction to Femi Fani-Kayode’s tweets in which he criticised the Sultan of Sokoto for not championing the fight against Child Marriage and paedophilia in the North.
Read Also: Child marriage in Northern Nigeria: Section 61 of Part I of the 1999 Constitution and the protection of children against child marriage
The betrothal of female children to adult males is still a regular phenomenon among the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group who occupy the northern part of Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, is prevalent also in other parts of the country. In Northern Nigeria, child marriage is a traditional cultural practice which is heavily influenced by Islam, a religion which historically has been practised in the region and which continues to be practised. Due to pressure exerted on children to marry young in Northern Nigeria, 48 per cent of Hausa-Fulani girls are married by age 15, and 78 per cent are married by age 18.1
These appalling statistics led Elizabeth to describe the life of a girl child in Northern Nigeria as ‘pathetic’. To buttress her assertion she maintains that, while the ideal marriage age of women, although it varies, is between 20 and 26 years old,2
[i]n the North, little girls who have started menstruating are considered mature for marriage and the case of menstruation varies as a girl of twelve can be given out for marriage based on the fact that she has started menstruating.
Despite the prevalence of child marriage among the Hausa-Fulanis, child marriage is illegal in Nigeria. As a step towards showing that it does not support child marriage, Nigeria has signed and ratified international and regional instruments which regulate the rights of children. Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 16 April 1991, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Children’s Charter) on 12 July 2001. Additionally, Nigeria took steps to domesticate both instruments in the form of the Child Rights Act (CRA). However, irrespective of Nigeria’s passing of the CRA in 2003, the adherence to Islam and the application of Shari’a in the northern parts of Nigeria, where child marriage is practised, continue to violate the provisions of CRC, the African Children’s Charter and the CRA.
The article examines international and regional instruments such as CRC and the African Children’s Charter, which prohibit the practice of child marriage. Particular attention is given to Nigeria’s domestication of both instruments through the CRA. Irrespective of the promulgation of this Act, I argue that child marriages are, to a certain extent, tolerated in Nigeria because of the weakness of the CRA. Such weakness stems from the fact that the CRA has to be passed into law in each state in Nigeria before child marriage may be considered illegal. Therefore, because the CRA is not enforceable across all Nigerian states, it leaves children in states that have not signed the CRA vulnerable. Other than this weakness, the article points out flaws in the 1999 Constitution that are loopholes that allow child marriage in Nigeria.
Part II of the article examines CRC, the African Children’s Charter and the promulgation of the CRA in Nigeria despite it being met with opposition from religious groups and traditionalists. In this section problems with the CRA and its conflict with the Islamic practice of child marriage are discussed. Part III deals with the practice of Shari’a law in Northern Nigeria, the reasons why child marriage is practised in that region and the effects of child marriage that have been documented. Part IV argues that despite the enactment of the CRA, the girl child in Nigeria is not adequately protected and that this inadequacy stems from the wording of Part 1 Section 61 of the 1999 Constitution. Part V draws conclusions and proposes recommen-dations, such as the need for a ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act’, in order to protect the girl child in Nigeria.
Although the Nigerian government has tried to stamp out child marriage with the enactment of the Child Rights Act of 2003, the practice of child marriage is still prevalent among the Hausa-Fulani tribe (predominantly Muslim) who occupy Northern Nigeria and where Shari’a law is in force. While the Child Rights Act has sharp teeth, it has no bite because each state in Nigeria has to enact the Act under its own state laws before it is enforceable. This means that a social evil such as child marriage can be practised in a state that is yet to pass the Child Rights Act as domestic law. The article presents arguments outlining the reluctance of some of Nigeria’s northern states to enact the Act. The author maintains that the right of the girl child in relation to marriage is not adequately protected, due to Part 1 Section 61 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As a result, the article proposes three steps to ensure the legal protection of a girl child against child marriage: Firstly, Part 1 Section 61 of the 1999 Constitution should be modified; secondly, there should be a uniform age set for a child to marry in all of Nigeria’s legislation that deals with children; thirdly, while pressure should be put on all Nigerian states which are yet to domesticate the Child Rights Act, there is a need for a new Act (Prohibition of Child Marriage Act) which, if enacted, should automatically apply to all states in Nigeria in order to protect the girl child.