Most people in Nigeria are now familiar with the name of Ese Rita Oruru, the 13-year-old girl who was abducted in August last year from Bayelsa, transported to Kano, converted to Islam and married by a 25-year-old man called Yunusa.
The police have charged the young man to court after the girl was rescued from her “husband” in Kano and taken to Bayelsa. The full details of this abduction saga will be known soon.
The reason this story is sensational is not because it is an unknown phenomenon, it is not because the girl was a student, but it is because the girl was a Christian converted to Islam, married off without the parents’ consent and put in the family way. Some people have described it as modern day slavery, but this doesn’t mean it is a rare phenomenon. Since the Ese story broke, several other persons have hugged the headlines with their own stories too. It is a basically an ancient story made interesting by the new story tellers basically, because of religion and the cross cultural implications for the country, child marriage has always been present in Nigeria and in the rest of the world.
A survey done by UNICEF between 1995 and 2004 indicates that 76 per cent of Nigerian women between ages 20 and 24 admitted being married before age 18, while 28 per cent reportedly married before age 15. However, another survey done by UNICEF on the state of the world’s children in 2013 indicates that child marriage is prevalent in most developing countries and Nigeria is not the worst hit. Here are the percentages of girls married before age 18: Nepal 75 per cent, Chad 68 per cent, Central African Republic 68 per cent, Bangladesh 66 per cent, Guinea 63 per cent, Mozambique 56 per cent, Mali 55 per cent, Burkina Faso and South Sudan 52 per cent each while Malawi scored 50 per cent.
In many rural communities in Nigeria, Christian and Moslem, women have always been married off early especially where the parents are poor and uneducated. Poor and uneducated parents usually marry off their under-aged children to reduce the economic burden on the family and to offer their kids protection from sexual promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases. In some cases, it was to ensure the security of the girls or simply because tradition favoured early marriage. The UNICEF estimate is that 15 million girls are married off every year before age 18.
In Moslem communities where religion is regarded as a complete guide to personal behaviour, the adherents seek guidance on marriage practices by saying that even Prophet Mohammed married his third wife, Aisha, when she was about age six and consummated the marriage when she was about nine years old. However, some Moslem scholars have admitted that even religion must adapt to current knowledge of life and living based on new discoveries about people’s health especially women’s. For example, the presence of HIV and Aids as well as Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) was virtually unknown in the days of Prophet Mohammed. These two ailments are some of the worst diseases that afflict humankind, especially women.
Besides, in today’s complicated world a girl under the age of 18 is still basically a child, almost totally uninformed about the complexities of marriage, home care and child rearing because at that age her education is very limited. So those who seek to turn babies into brides using Prophet Mohammed as the yardstick are simply trying to be too clever by half. The Prophet never said it was a crime to wait for a girl’s full maturity before marriage. At full maturity a wife will contribute significantly to better parenting, home care and the children’s proper upbringing.
A child bride suffers the disadvantage of having her education and her childhood arrested. She is not emotionally or even physically fully developed to be able to become a wife and mother. She is, therefore, likely to become totally dependent on the husband. Because of her poor education she is likely to become an incompetent wife and untutored mother. Besides, early marriage leads to avoidable complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
In any case, the world has become more human rights conscious today than it was many years ago. The United Nations regards child marriage as a violation of human rights.
It has several conventions to that effect. Some of these are the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Committee on the rights of the child (CRC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Right. In fact, as recent as 2013, the UN Human Rights Council had adopted a resolution against child, early and forced marriage, thus putting its stamp on the practice as a human right violation.
The practice of child marriage may be prevalent in Nigeria but that does not make it right or legal. The case of the former Governor of Zamfara State, Ahmed Sani, who wanted to marry an Egyptian minor, generated a lot of controversy many years ago. That bad example set by someone who had been a governor of a state and a senator reflects the thinking and the behaviour of some of our wayward elite who take decisions for the country.
Child marriage is an offence against the wellbeing of the child; it perpetuates poverty and reinforces gender inequality in the country.
The recent shooting down of a bill on gender equality at the National Assembly is a sad commentary on the contemporary thought process of our lawmakers and their world view.
Our elite may continue to resist the idea of gender equality or gender equity but the process of actualising it is irreversible because many forward looking people all over the world have realised that any society that puts one half of its citizenry in virtual isolation from the momentum of global change is hurting itself. It may be late but we will realise it at some point in the nation’s life.
Many communities are devising creative ways of helping young girls from getting married early. The Haryana State Government in India runs a programme in which poor families get financial incentive if they keep their girls unmarried and in school until age 18.
A similar programme was put together by the Ethiopian government in Amhara region in 2004. Families were paid cash for their daughters to stay in school and away from men who wanted to seduce them into child marriage. The government also provided school basic needs to the kids, and counseling on sexual and reproductive health.
The Ese Oruru story has opened a brand new chapter on this ticklish subject but, as always, we are not on the same page. We have come to look at this case and all the other cases from a North/South, a Christian/Moslem prism. But it is a tragic human story, the story of the enslavement of young people by older people, of the desire of some people to keep women at life’s fringes and, therefore, make their upward movement impossible.
It is a story that is fuelled by illiteracy and poverty because in almost all cases we will encounter, the girl-victim is from a poor and illiterate or barely literate background. With or without consent Ese would not have been in the situation she has found herself if she was not from a background that made her reachable, accessible and seduceable. So the story of poverty and illiteracy and their ruinous implication for our polity continues. How many children belonging to well educated and rich persons do you know that have been married as children?