With 22 million girls between 13 and 17 years already married in Nigeria, the country has the highest number of child brides in West and Central Africa, according to a UNICEF report. That is 40% of all child brides in the two regions.
According to Safe The Child International, child marriage is common in northern Nigeria, where 78% of girls marry before they turn 18. In most parts of northern Nigeria, the practice of Islamic law recognises child marriage.
The West and Central Africa regions are home to six of the ten countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage globally - 41% of all global incidences, UNICEF said.
However, though Nigeria has the highest number of child brides due to its swelling population of 213 million, other countries in the regions come ahead in terms of prevalence rate: Niger Republic (76%), Central African Republic (68%), Chad (67%), Guinea (72%), Mali (69%) and Nigeria (64%).
Besides religious beliefs, poverty and location demography contribute to the practice. Child brides are less likely to complete their education; they are prone to domestic violence and abuse. The practice could result in early and complicated pregnancy, and it could affect a girl's sexual and reproductive health.
Campaign to end the practice gains support
Working on challenging this culture that dehumanises the girl child and rips them of their potential, a non-governmental organisation, Never Your Fault, is championing a campaign - #BanChildMarriageNigeria, for the federal government of Nigeria to abolish child marriage in all 36 states across the country.
Never Your Fault, an outfit by a group of teenage friends: Susan Ubogu, Kudirat Abiola, and Temitayo Asuni, is challenging the constitutional provision in section 29 (4b), which is ambiguous and contradicts another provision of law that protects the girl child and discriminates against the female gender.
"In Nigeria, gender equality is something we need to work towards, and there are institutionalised systems which aim to keep women subservient to men. One of such is the issue of child marriage," the group said in the petition on change.org.
"The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria presents contradicting stances on the issue. Section 23 of the 2003 Nigerian Child Right's Act says a person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage. If such a marriage does take place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect. Contradicting that is Section 29(4b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which says, any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age."
The petition has already received 472,569 signatures as of the time of writing this report, just 27,431 short of the total 500,000 signatures the group is targeting to gather to compel lawmakers in the country's two legislative chambers to amend the contradicting provisions of the laws that encourage the practice in the country.
"Due to the fact that this law is not clearly stated, many Nigerians have gotten away with marrying young girls at any age. This petition is calling on lawmakers in the Nigeria Senate and House of Representatives to amend this section and make the constitution clearer on child marriage in Nigeria," the group said.
More than amendment
But to understand the seemingly legal contradictions, Prime Progress spoke to two legal practitioners. The two lawyers explained that even though the issue of child marriage has become a societal menace, merely changing section 29 (4b) may not be enough to abolish child marriage.
Peterson C. Ihunweze, a legal practitioner based in the nation's capital, Abuja, explained that the constitution's provision in section 29 (4b) merely agrees with the nation's extant laws governing the marriage contract.
"The constitution said 'any person that is married.' And I want you to understand that we have two types of marriage recognisable in Nigerian law: First is a marriage conducted under the Marriage Act, and the second is a marriage contracted under Native Laws and Customs, which includes Islamic law [that supports child marriage]," Ihunweze explained.
"So in Islamic doctrine and principles, for instance, if Islamic marriage is recognised under the Act, that marriage is valid under Islamic law and custom which is a recognisable way of marriage in Nigeria. So when that is done, the constitution in section 29 (4b) now gives the marriage validity."
Ihunweze argued that the constitution's position in this instance merely complements the legal provisions in the nation's Marriage Acts (which provides for the celebration of marriage), stressing that it only presumed that anyone married is validly consummated under Islamic law or whatever tradition that was relied upon.
Babatunde Bamigboye, another legal practitioner, agreed with Ihunweze. He said the problem is that any effort to amend section 29 could spark some state governments to "validly" contest the amendment on the ground that it does not align with their native law and customs, as well as the peculiarities of each jurisdiction in respect to marriage. And that is because most northern Nigerian states support child marriage based on the prevalence of Islamic law in those states.
However, Ihunweze and Babatunde advised that it is safer for state governments to be guided by consent, the girl's best interest, and science.
Ihunweze said rather than advocating to change the native and customary law, which may be going against the people, sustained advocacy against the practice in certain regions of the country would help change mindsets and draw attention to the health and economic implications of child marriage in the society.