In the second week of April, 2014, Nigerians were hit by news of a 14-year old Kano girl, Wasila Umar, who poisoned her 35-year old husband, Umar Sani, and three of his friends to death by putting rodenticide in their meal. The child said she did not love the deceased, and was forced into marrying him by her father who admitted beating her prior to the marriage. Her deceased husband had, two weeks after their marriage, invited his friends to celebrate it when the ugly incident happened.
Child marriage is defined as a marriage before the age of 18. Exponents and practitioners of child marriage may say that, at 14, Wasila does not appreciate the meaning of love; hence the parents can think for and railroad her into matrimony. They stress the need for children to obey their parents. Yet, Wasila must be credited with knowledge of who or what she likes or dislikes. And if she says she doesn’t love somebody, it must be taken that she speaks from the heart.
Do parents ignore the feelings of their toddler who refuses the extended arms of a relation or family friend? So, why should they ignore their teenage daughter’s emotional feelings? All right-thinking parents wish for the best in marriage for their children, and a forced, loveless marriage cannot meet that wish. Some even argue that child marriage spares teenage girls of juvenile delinquency, pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancies! What an absurd excuse!
The practice of forced marriage of underaged girls by some parents to shameless, paedophilic men, old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers, plagues Northern Nigeria, some other parts of Africa and Asia. Pakistan’s radical Council for Islamic Ideology is reported to have recently condemned attempts to peg a minimum age for marriage, and went further to brand the existence of women as un-Islamic! In Nigeria, Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima and Dr. Ishaq Akintola of the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) are among the notorious exponents of child marriage. Their claim that child marriage is approved by Islam and prophet Mohammed has been dismissed by most muslims as unfounded.
Very few muslims who are paedophiles argue that Islam specified no minimum age for marriage, hence they can marry underaged girls. However most muslims say that the religion does not approve of child or forced marriage. And every right-thinking person knows when a girl is ripe for marriage. Interestingly, almost all Arab countries (except Saudi Arabia and Yemen) – nations with deeper Islamic roots than Nigeria – have legislated a minimum age for marriage. Reports have it that, after three years, Yerima divorced the 13-year old Egyptian girl he married, only to marry a 15-year old from the same Egypt! How many more underaged girls would he marry and divorce afterwards? What fate awaits the divorced child? There must be a secret, sinister and unGodly reason why some men desire underaged girls! Paradoxically, such men allow their daughters to mature before marriage! Now, Boko Haram insurgents have abducted more than 200 teenage girls to be used as sex slaves and wives!
Years back, among the Igbos, a girl could, at birth, be betrothed to a boy within her age group, by a prospective father in-law dropping a coin into her drinking water bowl. At times, the girl, on attaining puberty, would go and live with her prospective mother in-law for mentoring and tutelage. However, she must mature fully before being married properly by the fiancé and in no case would the marriage be consummated until she attained maturity. An ideal marriage comes with the mutual consent of the man and woman, both of whom should know what they are about. A betrothed Igbo girl was groomed to love and take her fiancé as her husband before the actual marriage and, in due course, she matured and gave her consent and was not forced into [child] marriage.
Studies have shown that child marriage is largely to blame for the rampant incidence of Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF), as well as maternal and infant mortality in Northern Nigeria. The undeveloped pelvic girdles of a girl-child are too small to allow the passage of a baby, resulting in prolonged labour and, at times, VVF and the death of either mother or child or both. If any of these happens, the husband moves on, seeking another girl-child to prey on.
Beside the need for physiological maturity, a mother must be equipped mentally to enable her adequately bring up a child. What sort of upbringing would a 14-year old girl, still in need of parental nurture and mentoring, offer a child? Such a girl would, at most, be in Class 3 of the Junior Secondary School (JSS). It is scary to imagine a society where underaged girls rampantly become mothers and raise children!
Most child-wives desire quality education, have big dreams and high hopes of actualizing them. Unfortunately, such desires, dreams and hopes may never be realized once they are forced into underaged marriage. I doubt if Senator Yerima ever sent his 13-year old former wife to school. Thus, in addition to the rising incidence of VVF and maternal and infant mortality, child marriage increases the number of illiterate women in the society. A vicious cycle of illiteracy ensues as child-wives beget girls who, without education, are also forced into early marriage, replicating unrealized dreams and dashed hopes.
On seeing their mates still single and in school, these child-wives boil and get depressed over their situation. Their complaints are useless; their parents who forced them into the sorry state have no ears for their protests, while their husbands treat them as chattels. They get depressed the more. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said “violence is the voice of the unheard”. This may explain Wasila’s action. One can only imagine how she boiled over her pitiable condition, warranting her development of murderous tendencies. I do not justify her action; however, it is beyond argument that pent-up anger or frustration usually finds an outlet someday, somehow. It could take the form of self-destructive steps (alcoholism, drug addiction or suicide) or action(s) which may be injurious to another. Wasila took the latter.
There is, however, a frightening possibility. Wasila’s criminal and condemnable precedent could embolden other child-wives into emulating her. We should gird our loins for such an ugly turn of events. Perhaps, her action would deter parents and men who subscribe to child marriage, more than the provisions of the Child Rights Act 2003 which, under sections 21, 22 and 23, prohibit and criminalize child marriage and betrothal. What is the value of the Child Rights Act when the likes of Senator Yerima walk about free? A further proof that Nigerian laws are hardly enforced, especially against the elite! Yerima claimed he is not subject to the Child Rights Act, a law validly enacted by the National Assembly of which he is a member! Pray, has he ceased to be a Nigerian? Assuming the Act does not apply to Zamfara State, is it also inapplicable to Abuja where he wedded the 13-year old?
Eventually, Wasila may be arraigned, prosecuted and possibly convicted and sentenced to a jail term. Nonetheless, by her age, she cannot be given the death sentence. Beyond that, we must act fast to avert the recurrence and spread of such incident. The Federal Government and all the States’ governments must take urgent steps to end child marriage. Public sensitization efforts by relevant government MDAs, offices of first ladies, women groups, religious bodies and non-governmental organisations should be intensified to highlight its evils. The provisions of the Child Rights Act must be strictly enforced across board; we achieve nothing by enacting laws whose provisions are selectively or never enforced.
Importantly, education should be free indeed at all levels. This will deny poor parents of any excuse for not sending their children to school. There is a connection between poverty, lack of access to education and
child marriage. Some poor parents are enticed by the money offered by paedophilic men to marry their underaged daughters; Senator Yerima reportedly paid $100,000 to an Egyptian taxi driver to marry his 13-year old daughter! Furthermore, the government must tackle the rising unemployment in Nigeria. The sight and plight of the countless unemployed graduates dampen the interest of some parents and children in education.