Child marriage is prohibited by Nigeria’s Child Rights Act, which bans marriage or betrothal of girls under the age of 18. However, in many states, families are ignorant about federal law and traditional practices remain. It is still common for girls to be wed as soon as they hit puberty; around 18% of girls in Nigeria will be married before the age of 15.
Marrying off girls at a young age is especially common in northern parts of Nigeria. During times of hardship across the Sahel, poor households in the north often rely on the dowry a married daughter can bring to feed their families. And parents may be unaware their age-old custom flouts federal law. A reporter for the Guardian recently spoke to one father in the state of Zamfara who had recently given his blessing for a man in his 40s to marry his 13 year-old daughter. “I wouldn’t force my daughter to marry somebody she doesn’t like, but as soon as a girl is of age [starts menstruating], she should be married,” he said.
Some states have carried out campaigns to make parents more aware of the health dangers inherent in early marriage, particularly those linked to pregnancy and childbirth. Young girls face a much higher risk of maternal mortality and complications such as fistulas, which cause uncontrolled urination or defecation. Nigeria has the highest rate of fistula in the world. As one doctor explains, this is partly because in teenage girls “pelvises aren’t at full capacity to accommodate the passage of a baby”. The condition is also more likely to occur during home births, where trained attendants or surgeons are not on hand. One 13 year-old Nigerian girl who had suffered a fistula was only taken to hospital three days into her labour, by which time her baby had died. “I thought [it] would never end,” the teenager said simply of her suffering during labour.
Growing awareness among teenagers
In some northern communities, girls may also be ignorant of their rights and legal status. However, awareness among teenagers is growing. The Guardian found one 16 year-old who had refused to be married at the age of 14. Zainab Oussman wanted to stay on at school and had therefore bravely told her parents that she did not want to marry. She is now an activist on the issue in order to help other girls facing the same situation. But for some, the knowledge that the law stands behind them may come too late or simply not be enough. One 14 year-old who has already been wed said simply that her husband “gets angry” when she asks about carrying on her learning. Now she grinds maize each day for herself and her in-laws, although her “heart is in school”.