Nigeria has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world. With 1,193,000 women married before the age of 18. Nigeria is the third country worldwide for absolute number of child brides (United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)).
In 2013, about 47 percent of the women in Nigeria aged 20-24 were married in union before age 18. Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution sets legal marriage at age 18. The 2003 Child Rights Act, Article 21, reinforced this legal age. However, by June 2016, only 23 states out of 36 states in Nigeria enacted this law as mentioned by the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “free and full” consent to marriage cannot be given if one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.
Child marriage occurs when one of both parties are below the age of 18. While boys can be affected, the practice predominantly impacts girls.
According to UNFPA child marriage by sub-national regions in Nigeria showed the northwest region having 72 percent, northeast region 72 percent, north-central region 37 percent, and southwest 15 percent; the south-south region reported 26 percent and southeast region 17 percent. Child marriage occurs more frequently among girls who are the least educated, poorest, and living in rural areas.
Child brides are more prevalent in northern Nigeria, particularly in rural areas because girls living in rural areas tend to marry before those living in urban areas. This was why the UNFPA in collaboration with the Kaduna State government in northwest Nigeria launched the Adolescent Girl Initiative in Northern Nigeria. The collective is looking to improve safety for school girls, delay marriage, and promote female empowerment through access to education.
Members of the initiative held an event in Kaduna on Wednesday, August 17, where I was in attendance. Dignitaries at the event included the Governor of the State Nasir El-Rufai.
Canadian High Commission in Nigeria
Nancy Smith, a representative for the Canadian High Commission in Nigeria who was also at the event in Kaduna said northern Nigeria has the highest rate of female illiteracy in the country and accounts for negative health outcomes, which include: the highest maternal mortality ratio (MMR), infant mortality, as well as the highest rate of early marriage.
The goal of the initiative, she explained, is to improve the well-being of girls socially, economically, and through health education living in rural and low-income areas, at least comparative to girls living in more urban settings. Smith added the girls’ futures needed to be secured through increased access to education (“make them stay in school”), sexual reproductive health information/services, and life-skills that will positively impact their health choices.
Governor El-Rufai explained to guests and partners at the event that in conjunction with the Ahmadu Bello University’s Population and Reproductive Health Initiative and the Bixby Center for Population, Health, and Sustainability at the University of California, Berkeley, the initiative thus far has benefited 425 of Kaduna’s adolescent girls.
Ending child marriage requires strategies for girls’ empowerment, social and cultural norms change, legal reform, and policy action. Proven solutions involve girls’ schooling especially lower secondary school and programs that offer life skills, literacy, health information and direct services as well as social support.